Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Ultimate Pilot Checklist: The Sopranos

Tony Soprano is a New Jersey mob boss who reluctantly enters therapy with Dr. Melfi after he starts passing out from panic attacks. She gets him to admit that he fears losing his actual family (wife Carmela, daughter Meadow, son Anthony Jr., Uncle Junior, mother Livia) and his mob family (lieutenants Christopher, Silvio, Paulie, and Pussy). In the 58-minute pilot, Tony juggles six (!) storylines: He bonds with ducks in his pool, deals with a debtor at an HMO, tries to convince his mother to enter a nursing home, wars with Czech rivals, keeps his Uncle from killing a man at a friend’s restaurant, and grapples with all of the above at therapy. (A seventh non-Tony storyline involves a power-struggle between Carmella and Meadow over a trip to Aspen.)
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?
Very much so.  The earlier drafts had no murder or beating, but he realized that the audience would crave those scenes.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Very much so: the therapy sessions.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 A mobster and his therapist.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
  In a world where the worst thing they can say about you is “he talked”, a mobster takes the talking cure.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
  HBO loves violence, nudity, and moral ambiguity.
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.”)
  The first beating is down to the sound of a doo-wop song while Tony chuckles behind the wheel: it’s fun.  Also there’s a lot of humor.
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?)
Probably, but they didn’t try, casting a little-known (but frequently seen and always great) character actor instead. At the time it was much harder to get movie stars to try TV, but this show helped change that.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Very much so.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
The mobsters are working class guys who have become nouveau-riche, with all of the attendant drama that brings.  Melfi, meanwhile, is higher class but much poorer.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Very much so.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
Very much so.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes. Each episode will be 2/3 ongoing and 1/3 episodic, with life-or-death stakes for each (and millions of dollars at stake as well.)
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Yes (In this case: the Artie Bucco and HMO stories)
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: killings, beatings, conspiracies, and therapy breakthroughs.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
The ducks, the strip club meetings, etc.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Very much so.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
The beating, the killing, Carmella with the assault rifle, fire-bombing his friend’s restaurant.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Many: Carmella assumes his psychiatrist is male, and pushes him to admit he has a mistress, none of the family dramas reach any resolution, etc.
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: Junior seeks Olivia’s blessing to kill Tony.
PART 2: IS THIS A COMPELLING HERO? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.) (16/16)
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?)
Just going to a psychiatrist is sympathetic and out of character. Also: his affection for the ducks.  And he’s funny.  The scene with his mom generates a lot of empathy and identification.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The boss of New Jersey.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
A soft touch with his family, filled with existential dread.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Won’t be disrespected, fiercely loyal to friend, violence is the solution. 
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Reactionary-philosopher (“They had pride—Today, what do we got?”), “Legitimate businessman” (There was an issue of an outstanding loan.)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Thin-skinned defensiveness mixed with violence.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 With loved ones: Belligerence and exasperation. With everyone else: Smirks and contemptuously blatant lies.
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his great strength?
He has no soul.  He’s evil.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Very much so.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
Very much so.
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 great flaw?
He’s smarter, tougher and more self-aware than everyone else.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Very much so.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Is the hero curious?
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Yes.  Blowing up the restaurant isn’t what anyone else would do.
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. Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli were Goodfellas vets, etc.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes. (Every actor turned out to be great, except Tony, Jr., but it’s hard to cast a ten-year old in a small part and know if he’ll turn out to be great.)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Our loyalties are torn between Tony, Carmela, Christopher, etc. (Even Melfi is somewhat dubious.)
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Yes. Tony tries to define himself according to his backstory, but the writing doesn’t let him get away with that: he has no excuse for his current behavior and that’s what really defines him.
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.)
Very much so.
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?)
Our hero is the boss of bosses, and yet everybody else bosses him around, so yes.
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, Melfi.
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Yes, she knows that she has to read between the lines.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Not really yet.  When we get to know the lieutenants better, we’ll get a sense of that. For now, the minor characters are largely undifferentiated.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Carmella: Catholicism, Christopher: Hollywood, Melfi: folksy therapy, Olivia: Martyrdom
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Carmella: Hectoring, Christopher: Weasely, Melfi: unintimidatable, Livia: Cruel
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Carmella: Dogged, shows empathy but gives no ground, Christopher: Makes excuses, weasels out, Melfi: Lets you hang yourself, subtly steers you into the noose, Livia: Guilt trip.
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Yes, Livia.
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?
Yes, it benefits from a full hour of HBO time.
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
It has no commercials, so this isn’t an issue.
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: he has a series of disasters at the midpoint, for example.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes: the time frame will be loose on this show, but this episode covers about a week or two (I’m assuming that he’s on a 3-times-a-week therapy schedule, which would be about right for someone dealing with crippling panic attacks) Many future episodes will have a similar span (long enough to have a problem, go to therapy about it, then solve the problem)
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
Very much so: the weave here is beautiful.
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?
Very much so: the first therapy session and voice-overs end at 25:00, at which point we’re caught up and the rest of the show is a normal episode
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: the Artie Bucco and HMO stories
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Amazingly, yes, even though there’s a lot 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)?
Yes, (for the Artie storyline, not the HMO storyline) he loves Artie but doesn’t want to piss off his uncle.
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?
Find out the source of his panic attacks so he can get back to work.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Episodic: Guy refuses to pay him, he finds out that his uncle will wack a guy in his friends restaurant. Premise: He gets panic attacks.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, all three.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, Uncle Junior, etc.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, he refuses to dig deep in therapy,
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
Yes: He storms out of therapy and then has another panic attack.
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’s more honest in therapy, he cracks down on the HMO guy and accelerates his attempts to help Artie.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Yes, all of the plots are established and driven by character rather than outside events now.  This will be a show with a lot of plots, but without a lot of plot twists.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Yes, little Pussy is back in town.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Yes, Artie’s wife refuses the cruise tickets, etc.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Yes, he realizes how to fix most of his problems.
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?
Tony has learned that “talking helps.” He shows compassion instead of violence to Christopher and others.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (21/23) (Sample scene: Tony, feeling great, tries to quit therapy, but Melfi convinces him to stay and forces him to finally have a breakthrough about the ducks)
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?
Tony thinks hes going to be wrap things up.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, talking here can get Tony killed (and damage his self-image.)
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Tony intends to leave early, but Melfi draws him back in.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
The bizarre penis dream.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Yes, he stormed out of his first session, and he’s already saying his good-byes for good when the scene begins.  She has a short window to get him to stay.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Not the plot, just character.  This show will be very atypical in that it will get away with separating the plot scenes and the character scenes, which is usually a terrible idea.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Tony melts into a puddle of tears.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We are on Melfi’s side, but we also applaud Tony for achieving his breakthrough.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, he wants to go (and avoid his problems) and she wants him to stay (and confront his problems.)
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Will therapy continue? Suppressed: What is he afraid of?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
She calls it out.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Very much so: he resists for as long as possible, and she too is very sly about getting him to stay.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Her confrontation could not be more indirect (or more effective.)  She zeroes in on her target (getting him to see the truth about the ducks) and very subtly forces him in that direction, casually cutting off every other avenue.  He attempts in vain to evade her with his owned feigned casualness, until he runs smack into the pain, and the truth.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
None whatsoever.  Chase had a rule that the camera could not move in the therapy scenes, so as not to provide confirmation of where the breakthroughs are.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Yes and no: Not that we see, but in the dream he describes, his penis is taken away by a bird, and he fiddles with his tie while describing it, so larger values are still embodied in physical things.
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?
Tony agrees to remain in therapy, and commits to a deeper exploration.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, he thought he was cured, but now realizes how big the problem really is.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
What is it about those ducks?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will Tony lose his families?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Will Tony use his therapy breakthrough to become a better person or a worse person?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
”What are you so afraid is going to happen?” “I don’t know.” (overlaps with burning sound and we cut to sausages being pressed into a grill)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Tony gets more empathy than the others in the pilot, though each would eventually come into their own.  This was necessary to get us to care for an evil hero.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much 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.
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)?
Very much so.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Superbly: The HMO takeover for example. Also the discussion of sending a message with a body vs. making it disappear.
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?
Yes: “No fucking ziti now??”
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: Much humor comes from the attempts of uneducated people to sound educated.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, when Melfi finally forces Tony to see what the ducks are really about.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
It merges the mafia show and the therapy show, which somehow works.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes: Chase was putting his own abusive mother in a home and felt like a monster, so he extrapolated that guilt into this show.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Yes: dark humor mixed with epic melodrama.
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Very much so.  The HMO story is played for comedy (which is bizarre), the Artie story for pathos (although it’s actually the funnier concept.)
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
 Tony says “This is impossible, I can’t talk about what I do.” then we see Tony himself break a guy’s bones for talking out of turn.
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?
Very much so: the therapy is a brilliant framing sequence (but by halfway through it is no longer a framing sequence and the timeline becomes normal)
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? 
What caused Tony’s first panic attack?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We don’t worry about who Junior plans to kill, for instance.  (Bizarrely, however, the biggest foreshadowing of all never pays off: nobody every finds out that Tony is seeing a therapist in the seven years of the show!)
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
Not really.  Tony’s life naturally creates life-and-death drama, so the show will have little need for plot contrivances.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, the ducks leaving gave him a presentiment that his two families would abandon him.
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, the New Jersey crew is in competition with the New York crew and others. Our guys are the ones who have decided that the world is changing and they’ll now need more than garbage, literally and figuratively.
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 stated statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
 “It’s good to get in on the ground floor, but I came in too late.  My father, he had his people, they had their standards, they had pride, today, whatta we got?”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Evil vs. evil: Power through crime vs. powerlessness through lawfulness, The vulnerable talking cure vs. the invulnerable code of silence, etc.
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
They’re all clearly evil except Melfi, but she does have many such decisions: Should she keep her oath of confidentiality or betray her patient to the law? Can she accept the table that Tony arranges for her?  Etc.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Yes, in many subtle ways: The Artie, Olivia, Meadow and Therapy stories all involve food. In the HMO storyline, Tony is really angry because the debtor said that Tony was nothing compared to his father, which is also what his mother is saying. Almost every story involves fraying families.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Yes, those above, but many more are pointed out by Chase in his commentary (he’s interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich, who points out many more) For instance: the first image of Tony is seen through the legs of a female statue, infantilizing him.   Best of all, when Tony cries in therapy, he says of himself “Oh Jesus fuck, now he’s gonna cry!” He’s truly internalized his mother’s criticism!
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’s set-up reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.  We get a far more realistic version of the mob than we’ve ever seen before, finally allowing their day-to-day corruptions of our life to be revealed in great detail, such as with the HMO story.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so, at least in its early years. In its later seasons, the mob element would just be a symbol of Tony’s inner sickness and America’s larger woes, but in these early seasons it was actually an authentic setting.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  As Melfi says of Tony’s woes, “A lot of people in America feel that way.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Yes, in the early seasons.  Tony is not presented as a hero or justified in any way, nor is Melfi let off the hook for enabling him.  Yes, it’s a symbol, but its symbolic value does not overshadow the reality of it at this point.
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Yes.  Moreso later when Artie is denied his insurance claim.
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 and no.  It’s a therapy show, so there will be a lot of synthesizing, but the question will always be: Is Tony having breakthroughs or reconfirming his own self-deceptions?  
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Yes. The food and family storylines converge as Olivia and Junior plot to kill Tony, then arrive at dinner where they all come together with the line “Let’s eat!” Are they eating together or devouring each other?
Total Score: 126/133 (Pretty Damn High!)


MCP said...

Excellent breakdown as usual. I do think that the other mobsters (at least his friends) learned about Tony's therapy. It has been years, but I think it was at the end of Season 1. I remember Tony talking with Steve Van Sandt, who basically said that he's been in therapy as well. It has stuck with me because of the irony of the big secret not being a big deal to his inner crew. But I could be totally wrong, and couldn't find the exact info when I googled it.

Matt Bird said...

Really?? I don't remember that at all. Can anyone else confirm?

Geekademia said...

Yeah, I recall that as well. Nobody thought it was that big of a deal, except they were a little bothered that he was seeing a female psychiatrist, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Tony comes right out and tells his mob associates he's been seeing a therapist in the S1 finale. In a later episode, the head of the New York mob, Little Carmine, mentions it, and says there isn't any stigma.

Every character post-S1 knows Tony is seeing a therapist, it's just a non-issue.