Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: Scandal

Olivia Pope runs a media-relations-focused law firm for scandal-plagued D.C. power players. In the pilot, new girl Quinn gets trained in by smooth operator Harrison and meets sarcastic Abby, lothario Stephen, and quiet Huck. The main story involves a medal of honor winner (Sully) who didn’t kill his girlfriend, but can’t prove it without admitting that he’s gay. In the other story, President Fitz Grant uses Olivia to silence a woman (Amanda Tanner) who claims to be his lover, but Olivia realizes that the woman is telling the truth, because Olivia also had an affair with Fitz and he used the same pet-name. Olivia decides to represent Amanda, setting up the season arc.
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?
Well, it’s pretty original (soap, lawyer, political thriller), but it satisfies the expectations of each of these.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
It’s a very original setting, so it doesn’t need a unique point of view.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
The relationships within the firm are pretty standard, but then we get a big new relationship: a black woman fixer pursued by a white guy Republican president! Nope, we’ve never seen that one before.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Lawyers who never enter the courtroom.  A scandal fixer who can’t stop herself from creating the biggest scandal of all.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Yes, it’s very ABC (which would soon be renamed “Shondaland”)
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 see that they can use their powers for both good and evil, and they’ll try to stay on the side of good, though they’ll lie to themselves a lot about that.
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)?
Just Olivia.
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?)
Yes. (Though Washington’s movie career wasn’t as strong as it should have been. I had been rooting for her since I saw Lift at Sundance.)
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Yes, it’s made clear that you’re not allowed to date any one or not know anything, or cry long as you’re there.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Yes and no.  It will be almost entirely about rich people, but there will just enough poor people.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
Yes and no.  Mostly cerebral, just a little physical. 
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes, we find this out at the end when she takes on the president.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Yes, there will also be a case of the week every week.
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)?
Sadly, it’s this: A powerful black woman fronting a TV show.  (And also later kissing the president, but I don’t remember if that was shown before it aired.)
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Kissing the president.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Lots, for many characters.
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?
The big revelation to the audience only: She had an affair with the president in the past. Escalation for future episodes: She takes on the president.
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?)
Oddball: She’s giving Stephen relationship advice while casually talking about how they’re about to confront Ukranian gangsters and break a deal with them.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The ultimate fixer.  Everybody gasps when they hear her name.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
She’s kind of a mess.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
She has many explicit rules: Don’t lie. No crying. I always trust my gut.  She breaks all three of those rules by the end, which lets us know that this will be a deeply hypocritical heroine, and yet we still like her, because we’re hypocrites.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Maternal: “Good boys!”  “Too much cleavage.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Flusters you, then drops overwhelming leverage.  And extreme eye contact.
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?
She’s addicted to power (romantically and otherwise) and she’s morally and legally slippery.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
Very much: she solves scandals but can’t keep herself from causing new ones.
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?
She great at wielding and manipulating power.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Very, very much so.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Not really.  Most of her employees are sort of mini-versions of her, just less so.  (I suspect that this is why Henry Cusick bailed after the short first season: he wasn’t allowed to distinguish himself.)  In fact, her employees are actually better at following her rules than she is: Quinn actually can trust her gut.
Is the hero curious?
Yes and no.  She tries not to be about certain things, but she can’t resist.
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, she has unique pull and unique relationships.
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 and no: they got Cusick but lost him. Ultimately, Olivia’s team was downplayed and the presidential politics were played up, partially because they got better actors on that side.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Well, not great but good. 
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Yes and no: they’re distinct but not defensible: They all vote down the case for different reasons, but they then fail to defend those points of view and instantly knuckle under. Only Quinn manages to change her mind about something.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Yes, we don’t get backstories yet, except a brief mention of Huck’s CIA past.  Their backstories will become much richer (and more ludicrous) later, but for now they’re defined by their actions and reactions to this case.
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.)
 Yes and no. Though they insist that they’re serving good, they all know deep down that they aren’t for much of the time.  It’s very impressive that they admit at the end that they don’t care who really did it because they’re just representing their client, but even there, they characters aren’t prioritizing their own wants.  It’s all about Olivia’s wants.
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?)
Olivia and the president do, of course, and the other do when out in the field.
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)?
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Yes, they keep shutting her out.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Vaguely:  Stephen and Abby =gut, Quinn and Huck= heart, Harrison and Olivia = head.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Stephen: adolescent boy, Abby: MSNBC, Quinn: teen
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Stephen: insecure/unsure, Abby: cold and quippy, Quinn: vulnerable, Huck: damaged, Harrison: swaggering, Fitz: sociopathic, Cyrus: fiercely loyal
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Abby: extortion, Quinn: breathless speeches, Harrison: looks for your tell, Fitz: false sincerity
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Well, Olivia herself basically qualifies, but if we don’t count her…they try with Abby, but the actress doesn’t create enough sparks, so they put Cyrus in this role in future episodes (and Mellie, to a certain extent), and that worked better.
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?
44 minutes.
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
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)?
 1st act out: Bleeding soldier comes in. 2nd act out: “You tell the president of the United States to make time.” 3rd act out: Demolishes accuser. 4th act out: Suicide attempt.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes, most episodes will take place within 24 hours, to get out ahead of the scandal.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
Sort of.  The mistress storyline should take place over a longer time frame than the murder storyline, but it’s just believable enough.
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?
It’s not a premise pilot, it’s pretty much “center-cut”
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)?
It has a complete stand-alone story.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Rhimes is very good at conflating character and plot.  It’s chock full of plot, but most of the plot twists connect either directly or thematically to Olivia’s inner turmoil, so it’s fine.  
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, she’s conflicted about the possible guilt of both of her clients, though she pretends otherwise.  (And she’s uncomfortable about how the two cases reflect each other.)
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?
Yes, get the baby back from the Ukrainians.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Yes, the guy walks in the door.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, after a bit of debate.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Not really unforeseen, but I’ll count it: the D.A. isn’t happy and Abby is disgusted by their client.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Solider storyline: Try to prove his alibi, President storyline: Try to threaten her away.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
Soldier: (just a mild one) Gun matches his.  President: Accuser attempt suicide.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Soldier: Try new methods. President: Watch her full time.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Yes, for both.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Soldier: They find alibi proof, but it’s video of him kissing another man.  President: Olivia actually listens to the accuser.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Soldier: They try to convince him to come out. President: Olivia confronts the president.
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, soldier comes out. Olivia admits to herself that her feelings for the president have comprised her judgment and morality. Soldier refuses to name his lover, then he does.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (19/23) (After being humiliated by Olivia, the president’s accuser attempts suicide. Quinn waits in the hospital and then briefs Olivia.
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?
Before the commercial break, we saw Quinn’s discomfort before and then her horror at the news.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, they’re already talking.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Somewhat. They spying on someone at a hospital.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Olivia doesn’t intend to have the second half of the conversation, and Quinn has to call after her to detain her.
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)?
Olivia told the rest of her team before she left, “I’ll be back!”
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
We suddenly suspect much more strongly that Olivia had an affair with the president, and we get to see another side of her.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Olivia’s composure finally cracks.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Our rooting interest has always been uncertain
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Quinn wants to change Olivia’s mind.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: what do we do about this suicidal woman? Suppressed: What is our relationship? Are you a good person or not? What’s really going on with you? Can anyone trust their gut? Etc.  
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Talking about someone else and talking about herself: “People are crazy, they get fixated on famous people, they stalk them.”
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Olivia is both.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
No, it’s direct.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
No touching
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
No objects.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
First inform Olivia, then make the case for the accuser.
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?
Olivia storms off to barge into the Oval Office.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Quinn pleading does no good, until she says the one thing that would change Olivia’s mind without realizing it.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Did they really have an affair?  What was the message that the accuser wanted to send?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
What will Olivia do?  What really happened between her and the president.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Very much so.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Implied question: Where’s she going.  Then we cut to the White House.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Ultimately, yes.  At times, the show teeters on the brink of Sorkin-disease, in which all non-stars are weak strawmen who collapse in defeat when blow away by the heroes’ brilliance, but each of their opponents eventually gets his or her own.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Yes, it turns out that she has a big blind spot.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.  They’re constantly lying to themselves about their feelings.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Many things are said in code.
Do the characters listen poorly?
Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Very much so.
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)?
No.  Everybody speaks very clearly in Rhimes shows.  There’s no cultural specificity here.  Everyone is totally deracialized in the pilot, though that will change.  
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
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?
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 and no.  There are lots of long eloquent speeches, but Rhimes knows how to break up long thoughts into a series of short, rousing, rhythmic sentences that doesn’t sound convoluted.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, the oval office scene.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
It’s an odd and somewhat uncomfortable mix of soap / lawyer show / political show, and eventually spy show, though that isn’t yet obvious in the pilot.  The show didn’t really take off until the second season when it become primarily a political thriller.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes, addiction to powerful bad boys becomes a black woman’s affair with a white Republican president.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Yes, surprisingly jauntry, for all the awful stuff going on.  After horrific scenes they’ll say “kicky” things like “I love my job!”
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Yes: the stand-alone story is a straight-up heroic narrative about protecting an innocent man.  The serialized story is much more morally murky.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
Yes, when they face down the gangster: There is mortal danger involved. Shortly afterwards, when Sully looks guilty, we get moral danger as well.
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?
Shockingly no, though this would become common in later episodes and later Rhimes shows. We just dive right in.  (The director makes up for this by putting in literal framing devices throughout, framing almost every shot through glass or around corners, [literally] reflecting the theme of public vs. private)
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? 
Will he be arrested?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Yes, the subtly prepare us for the fact that we won’t ever find out who killed the girlfriend.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
The secret that Olivia had an affair with the president is set-up very skillfully throughout the episode and then pays off big-time
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
It’s answered a little early when he’s arrested (giving Olivia time to move on to the B plot), then she comes back and springs him after all in the final act.
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)?
Very much so: they’re “gladiators in suits,” and they have contempt for how normal law firms are run. (Although we quickly realize that this is bullshit and they know it.)
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.)
There’s a false one early on:  “We all get paid crap salaries because we’re the good guys.” and “Because that’s what you are when you work for Olivia: a gladiator in a suit.”  But when she arrives, they laugh: “Did Harrison feed you a line about being a gladiator in a suit?” Later, he comes clean: “the reason we're not a law firm is we don't have to play within the rules of the law. We're fixers, crisis managers. We make the problems of our client, big or small, go away. It's not about solving a crime. It's not about justice. It's about our client.”  Everything is slippery on this show.
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Public vs. private
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Constantly.  Pay a kidnapper to get your son back?  Protect your client by lying to the cops? Threaten an accuser if you think she’s lying?
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Very much so.  Olivia realizes at the end that she is living a lie just like Sully, and she can talk him out of it but not herself.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
It’s everywhere. Unseen video surveillance plays in both storylines, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Very much so.  This will be a “defense lawyer” show that won’t shy away from the intense moral dilemmas of the job.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Yes and no.  In some ways, it’s very realistic (lawyers not going to court, protecting the 1% to ludicrous extremes, etc.) but there’s no shortage of “the world doesn’t work that way” howlers. For instance: the D.A. agrees to wait outside her door for 40 minutes while she tries to find new evidence! Rhimes’s respect for  how the world works fluctuates wildly.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Yes. Many of the unique details about law and the halls of power ring true. 
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so: Gays in the military, cheating politicians, many more.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Yes and no.  The “issue of the week” will usually be presented in a complex and non-hypocritical way.  As for the firm, the show will hypocritically twist things so that their machinations wind up serving justice, allowing us to be shocked at their bad ethics while reassuring us that nothing really bad happens as a result.
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Yes: the kidnappers get away,  the real murderer is uncaught, lives are destroyed.
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?
She synthesizes it, but she does it in the speech to Sully, so it’s sublimated and motivated, so that’s okay.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Yes, Sully can come out, but she can’t without wrecking the country and her career. 
Total Score: 121/133

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