Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: Weeds

Nancy Botkin is a young widow in the suburban town of Agrestic who has turned to pot-dealing to make a living. In the pilot we meet her uptight best friend Celia, her sons Shane and Silas, Silas’s girlfriend Quinn (who is also Celia’s daughter), Nancy’s best customer Doug, Doug’s son Josh (who sells drugs for Nancy), and Nancy’s suppliers, Vaneeta and Conrad. In one story, Nancy finds out Josh is selling to kids and blackmails him into stopping when she finds out he’s gay, in another, Shane is bullied and fights back, in a third, Silas and Quinn want to have sex with Nancy’s okay.
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?
It’s a pretty original show, but it certainly falls into the pay-cable-sitcom space of “snarky person transgresses society’s rules in outrageous and dangerous ways.”  It succeeds as comedy, as satire, and as character drama.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
The great opening credits using “Little Boxes” establish Nancy’s jaundiced view on suburbia.  Later, we get Nancy spying on other from her roof, which parallels the bird’s eye view of suburbia we get in the credits imagery.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
A PTA pot-dealer and her uptight friend.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Many.  See: PTA pot-dealer.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Pay cable is all about sex and crime. 
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.”)
Nancy shuts down her dealer from dealing to kids, stands up to lame parents.
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?)
Very much so.  Getting Mary Louise Parker to star in a TV series was a big get.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Very much so: breaking the law in a very tightly-controlled community.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Very much so: We begin with Nancy buying from black pot wholesalers in a poor neighborhood then selling it to rich people.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Pretty much. 
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Many: Will she get caught?  Will her kids find out?  Will she be caught up in drug violence?
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
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, we jump right in: She’s already dealing, already running into problems.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
To a certain extent.  They could have come up with a more iconic image for the pilot. They chose to focus on the baggies and marijuana leaves and that worked fine.  
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
PTA pot-dealer.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Not really.  For as crazy as this show would get later on, the pilot doesn’t really push a lot of buttons.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Very very much so.  When will each kid find out, when will Celia find out, when will the cops find out, who will sell for her now, 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?
Not really: She finds out her 15 year old son is having sex, then she seems to maybe pursue an affair with Conrad, but that’s not clear.
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?)
 When she fails to tries and fails to stand up to the PTA, then tries and fails to stand up to the drug dealers.  Then she makes a joke: “Alright, alright, fine, I’m a bitch-ass bitch.”  Also when her money has a ribbon on it (comically vain)
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Widowed suburban mom
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Drug dealer
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Don’t sell to kids, don’t let my kids down, don’t get caught
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 She has two: Combines PTA and drug-dealing “I’m the biggest game in the private community of Agrestic…Excuse me for trying to bring a little beauty into an ugly world.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Just asks naive questions and frequently gets lied to.  She’s not a good arguer. 
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 hypocritical.  In the first scene she says the PTA need to get soda out of schools, yet she’s bringing drugs in. 
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
She feels she can only afford to maintain her old lifestyle by hypocritically selling drugs there, yes.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
Very much so.  Everyone in Agrestic is a hypocrite.
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?
 Each of her two worlds gives her a greater perspective on her two world, and she has a canny business sense
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Yes, she’s a good pot dealer.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, nobody else has her perspective on the doings of the suburb.
Is the hero curious?
Yes, but she’s still the last to know everything, because her distance keeps out of the gossip circles.
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)?
She uses neighborhood gossip to solve her dealer problems, etc.
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 network TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Very much so.  Elizabeth Perkins, Romany Malco, and Kevin Nealon all had strong career histories.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Pretty good.  They even got good actors for the kids.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Yes.  Kohan excels at generating sympathy and strong voices for everyone.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Yes.  Even the kids are defined here by their interactions in the pilot, not by any memories of their dead dad.
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.  There is never any good or evil in Kohan’s world, just personal goals and desires, and varying levels of ethics.
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?)
Everybody is an independent contractor here.
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)?
No.  The pilot very skillfully gets us up to speed by little bits of background dialogue sprinkled throughout.  
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
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, everybody’s pretty 3-dimensional, even Celia.  This tends to be a hallmark of shows with black and white characters, because polarizing that world comes off as racist. 
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Shane teen: “She’s totally deaf!”
Silas: kid “Did they French kiss?”
Celia: Boosterism “So many of our girls are watching their weight” “Give yourselves a round of applause everyone”
Conrad: Pop culture.  “Enron! Worldcon!” That’s the rain man of weed right there.  You know I’m full service
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Shane: Awkward, frustrated, angry
Silas: Sly, cocky, glum
Celia: Uptight
Conrad: political, sly,
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Shane: Beligerant “’Turn the show back on.”
Silas: Insinuation, legalism “We weren’t under your roof.”
Celia: Dictatorial, brooks no opposition
Conrad: Plants an idea, waits for it to blossom
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?
Yes, it’s exactly 30 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)?
Escalations: 10 minutes in: Reluctantly agrees to give drugs to Josh to sell, 20 minutes in: Confronts him about selling to kids, 30 minutes: Walks in on her kids having sex.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Sure, a week’s time frame is about right for most episodes.
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?
It’s not a premise pilot.  The whole episode is fairly typical.
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: Shane gets revenge, Silas has sex, Josh and Celia get their comeuppance, etc.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
It’s pretty plotty, but it’s just simple enough.
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)?
It’s hard to decide if her 15 year old son is allowed to have sex, hard to make money selling drugs but keep it out of the hands of kids.
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?
Get sugary drinks banned from schools
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Troubling situations: Silas wants to have sex, Shane is acting angry (obsessed with hunting show), Josh wants drugs but won’t convincingly promise not to sell to kids.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Watches Silas closely, Gives Shane advice, Makes Josh promise
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Celia wants Nancy to promise kids won’t have sex and points out to her that Josh is dealing to kids, Shane gets into fight with bully.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, just snoops around Silas, extracts phony promise from Josh, tries to get Shane to enjoy Soccer.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
Yes, all three openly defy her: Quinn flat out asks her if she and Silas can have sex in her house, Josh taunts her that he’s selling to kids.  Shane gets beaten up.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She blackmails Josh, lays down the law with Silas, tells Shane to stand up for himself.
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?
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Literally: In order to talk it out with Quinn, she gets up on the roof, which gives her the solution to her Josh problem.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
She shuts Josh down.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, finally.
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?
She admits that she has no idea what she’s doing and goes to Conrad for comfort (reversing her confident rejection of him earlier.)
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (22/23) The first scene with Josh
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?
She gets away from  her kids by saying, “It’s a neighborhood watch thing.”
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it starts from the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
He jumps out at her, her kids are inside, we now know that there’s a neighborhood watch.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
She doesn’t want to.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Winged Migration used up his pot stash.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
She’s told her kids she’ll be right back.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
After he leaves, she sees a sign that says “Agrestic: First in pride” and feels sad.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re rooting for her.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
He wants drugs to sell, she’s reluctant to provide them.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Will she sell him the drugs? Suppressed: What kind of person am I?  Am I poisoning my community?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
The sign calls it out and he calls it out.  After her coffee cup spills out of the car, he warns her that it's a dangerous drug.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He says he heard that Shane needs braces.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Just a little: he climbs up front, gets out.  They only touch when she hands over the drugs.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
She hands over the drugs, he puts the money in her glove compartment when she won’t take it.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
It’s a small scene, just one goal
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?
She hands over the drugs.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
It’s not ironic.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Where was she going?  How is she selling?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will he sell to kids?
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 don’t trust him.  We’re worried about her slippery slope.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Is she betraying her community?  When we cut to the next scene we see that she isn’t.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so.
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?
Do the characters listen poorly?
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.  The differences in syntax in the white pot world and the black pot world are a source of comedy, as is Nancy’s inability to master the syntax of the latter.  See again, “Okay, fine, I’m a bitch ass… bitch.”
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
“I only sold him shake”
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
We see the mechanics of wholesale and retail.
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. Shane’s awkwardness is very real, but the charming way he talks about his awkwardness certainly has more personality than real life.
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?
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
From Josh.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
It blends two seemingly incompatible subgenres, family sitcom and crime show, but it feels somewhat seamless (for now.  Tone problems will soon emerge)
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Everybody feels like a fraud who’s about to be found out, especially in seemingly-perfect communities.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Lightly satirical
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Each storyline is semi-serious, semi-funny. 
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
She gets shut down by both Celia and Vaneeta.
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?
No, we dive right in.
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 they have sex under her roof? 
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Everything at the end is foreshadowed nicely: the broken skylight pays off (and lots of looking straight down imagery) in the sex, the bear imagery pays off with the video, the hunting pays off. 
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
The roof problems give them an excuse to be on the roof, which allows her to see the gay shenanigans she shouldn’t be able to see.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
They have sex in her house but not technically under her roof.
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)?
She won’t sell to kids, and forces out her competitor/sometimes ally when she finds out he is.
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.)
 “Maybe black people need to start stealing a little bit bigger” Black people don’t steal enough to become respectable, which is why they go to jail and whites don’t.
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Bad vs. bad: Lose a seemingly perfect life or sell drugs.  Also chaos vs. control.
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Let Josh sell to kids?  Let kids have sex?
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Sell to kids / let kids have sex / let kid take revenge or not. 
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Video camera bear = fake innocence with hidden hypocritical agenda / Equally fake TV bear hunting = diet soda = commodification of hypocrisy
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’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Yes, in a slightly exaggerated way.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so: diet soda in the schools, knock-off purse to maintain illusions, etc.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so: the hypocrisy of the drug war.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
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 fails. She merely cries for Conrad without saying anything.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Almost perfect! 128/131

Jenji Kohan writes some of the best pilots around, but her shows tend to run into problems later. Are there warning signs hidden under the surface? Let’s explore for the next two weeks!

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