Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: Transparent

I love this show! It fails the checklist in many ways, but it’s pure joy. If you haven’t seen it, check it out over on Amazon, then meet me back here (or read on and let me sell you on it.)
Mort Pfefferman has decided at age 69 to come out as transsexual and begin living as Maura. Her three grown children, Ali, Sarah, and Josh, are all neurotic and selfish, and Maura loses her nerve about telling them. Ali is aimless and seeks out a submissive relationship with a personal trainer. Sarah is in a loveless marriage to a man but attracted to her former college girlfriend Tammy. Josh is sleeping with a too-young singer that he reps. In the final shot, Sarah is kissing Tammy in Maura’s when Maura comes home and finds them there.
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 works as a family dramedy.  It’s funny and meaningful.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
Not really.  The camera drifts among the four principal cast members.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Very much so: A trans-parent and her three grown kids.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
The “moppa” is the one coming out and begging for her kids’ understanding.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Yes, it fits in with the emerging genre of streaming sitcom.
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 setting is mostly pleasant.  Some of the judgment Maura faces can be unpleasant, but we cheer for her in those moments, so they’re still fun to watch.
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)?
Yes, Maura.  Ali almost rises to the level of co-hero, but not quite.
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, Jeffrey Tambor was a big TV star and big “get”.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Yes, it’s made very clear in the pilot that this family is toxic, although well-intentioned.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Yes.  It’s about a family that lives as if they were rich when in fact they’re all in precarious positions (It’s unclear at this point whether or not they once had money or if they were always just living beyond their means)
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No.  There is no story-driver on this show.  Small realizations or decisions will drive the episodes, some of which are almost plot-free. 
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
No.  It’s going to be almost entirely talky.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes, we sense that Maura’s resolve and courage will constantly be tested for years to come.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Just barely.  Maura and to a less extent the three kids will set goals for themselves 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)?
No, it does precisely the opposite.  It withholds the central reveal until very late, and Maura puts off the central action to a future episode.  You could never get away with this on a non-streaming show.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
Maura dressed up.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Yup, there had never been a show before centrally focused on a transgendered character.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Yes and no.  Each of the four characters is sexually transgressive in some way, but the show’s thesis is that this is all okay, so they don’t encourage you to ever say “Holy Crap”
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Yes, when will he finally tell each kid, his ex-wife, 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: Sarah begins an affair, Ali seems to be entering into a masochistic relationship, and of course Maura is about to come out.
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?)
Out of character: accepts abuse, then briefly stands up for himself
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The womanizing old divorced dad.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Very much so.  She’s a woman on the inside.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
It’s time.  I can do this.  It’s okay to be afraid.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Jewish: “It’s because we’re shtetl people”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Sad, scared, quiet
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Acquiescence with fits of barked protest
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?
Scared, possibly selfish
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
She feels that she can (and must) stop being scared in order to enter the world of the show, but she fears that, as a transsexual, she can’t escape unfair accusations of selfishness (ie. “Why can’t you just keep this to yourself for our sake?”)
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
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?
Compassionate to her kids, brave
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Yes and no.  She’s never been a particularly good dad or a brave transsexual, but she’s trying to rectify both situations.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Her kids lack her newfound sensitivity.
Is the hero curious?
No.  She’s pretty clueless about what’s going on with her kids and still not curious enough. (She vaguely believes that Ali won a fortune on “The Price is Right”)
Is the hero generally resourceful?
No.  She’s totally without resources, but she’s slowly trying to build some.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Yes and no. She relies on her money, which she uses to control her kids and buy their affection.  Other than that, she’s pretty unskilled.
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, Gaby Hoffman was once a movie star.  Carries Brownstein has another popular show, etc.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes.  The cast is uniformly amazing.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Very much so.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
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.)
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?)
Yes, because Maura still owns the house, she has power over all of the kids who want it (or want to cash it in.)  Without the house, the show wouldn’t really work.  Sometimes the house is text and the trans stuff is subtext and sometimes the opposite.
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.  We have to catch up on the fly.
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)?
Every character is 3-dimensional
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Ali: teen, Sarah: mom, Josh: music “I’m doing a little riverdance on you boobs.”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Ali: Flighty, Sarah: Unfulfilled, Josh: Horndog
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Ali: Sarcastic sniping, Sarah: blandly deceptive, Josh: flashes of anger, then drops it for later
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Both Josh and Ali.
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (16/22)                                                                
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.  Streaming shows are more able to get away with going over, but it’s precisely 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)?
1st act out: Arrive at house. 2nd act out: Reveal of Maura. 3rd act out: End
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes, it takes place over one 24 hour period, which will be common.
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?
No.  The premise only begins to be established in the final shot!
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)?
No.  We just get the beginnings of ongoing stories.  If we want satisfaction, we have to stream the next one immediately. 
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Very much so.
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)?
Very much so.  It’s so hard to do and hard to want to do that she doesn’t do it!
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, but we don’t know what it is yet: Come out.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Almost: she tries to tell them of her major life change.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, she did so at her previous support group, as we find out later.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, her kids are too selfish to let her talk.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, she backs down from telling them.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
Yes, they all leave quickly.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
No, she doesn’t try again in this episode, until she accidentally outs herself to one in the final shot. 
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Are the stakes increased as the pace quickens and the motivation escalates?
Not really.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Not really.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Yes, at the group.
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, she’s out to one child now. 
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (The family dinner 23/23)
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?
They’re worried she has cancer, and they want her money.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, it cuts to the middle of the dinner.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, it’s been made clear already that this is a toxic environment.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
None of them relish dinners with their dad and they’re not sure why he would call them there. 
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Lots: Gluten, barbecue messiness, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Josh has a show to get to, but we don’t find that out until he ditches.
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?
Yes, Maura cries, the others freak out.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Even though this scene introduces Mort/Maura, we’re instantly on her side, because we’ve already been turned off by her kids’ mercenary instincts.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
She wants to come out, they want her money and/or to confront her about her bad parenting (“You never taught us how to eat.”)
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Does he have cancer? Who will get the house?  Suppressed: Why were you a bad dad?  What’s really going on?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Sarah wipes Maura’s face, isn’t allowed to wife Josh’s, implying that Maura is infantilized and controlled, while the kids treat each other as peers.  Singing “Operator” implies a lack of communication.  “Gluten-free” stands in for neurosis, shows lack of compassion by others.  Fighting about messiness speaks to levels of repression/anal expulsion.  When Maura asks “Do you kids want me to have cancer?” Josh literally licks his lips (which have barbecue sauce on them). 
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Very much so.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He proposes selling the house to test their compassion, they fail the test.  Later he outright pays Ali for compassion.  
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Sarah wipes his face.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
The food is shared, then taken away.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
Come out, divvy up the house
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, he winds up offering up the house.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
She offers them death (Mort, giving them their inheritance early) instead of life (Maura, coming out)
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Does he have cancer?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Who will get the house?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
What did he really want to say?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Where are you gonna live, Daddy?
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Tremendously 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.  This is the central theme of the show.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Very much so.  The circumlocutions on this show are things of beauty.
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)?
Lots of Jewish phrasing is used to comic effect.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, we get lots of the new jargon of coming out. The language of parents, children and siblings is very naturalistic.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes and no.  Scenes are allowed to play long and there’s less compression than in usual dialogue.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes. It’s not so realistic that it’s not colorful or amusing.
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.  The hero is a professor, but even she doesn’t.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes and no.  He puts off the main confrontation, but he lashes out a bit at their dinner.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Family dramedy
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes, coming out as transsexual parallels all other repressed desire.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Very much so.  We are enveloped in a comfy blanket of Altman-esque ‘70s mellow gold.
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Yes: Josh’s is more serious, Sarah’s is more dramatic, Ali’s is more comedic. 
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
When Ali visits Josh, we realize the danger is that these people will ruin each other’s lives by dripping acid on them. 
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? 
It takes a while to establish it (you could say that the opening credits establishes it, I suppose) but the question of “When will she come out?” is answered with the last shot.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Fears about cancer misdirect us, making the reveal land bigger.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
The Croce song is nicely set up and paid off, setting up a beautiful closing montage.  There are no real plot contrivances.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, she comes out to one child in the final shot, accidentally.
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, this is clearly an exceptionally neurotic family, and their lovers are pretty baffled by that. 
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.)
 “They are so selfish.  I don’t know how it is that I raised three people that cannot see beyond themselves.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Sacrifice your needs for your kids or follow your heart
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Sarah faces the same dilemma as her dad, Ali must choose between accepting money or facing her failures, Josh must choose between love and propriety
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Very much so.  They all involve selfishness and suppression.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Food taken and given = nurture offered and denied, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Yes, all are now in transgressive relationships and they must grapple with that.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so. 
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?
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?

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