Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Ultimate Pilot Checklist: Master of None

This show just won the Emmy for comedy writing, so let’s check it out...
Wise-cracking Dev is an actor in New York City, where he hangs out with his big jerky friend Arnold and his cool lesbian friend Denise. He has a one-night stand in the pilot with Rachel (who will return to be his love interest for the series) with a broken-condom scare, then he goes to a kid’s birthday party thrown by his friend Grant, who seems happy with kids, then agrees to watch the kids of his friend Amanda. The kids run Dev ragged and almost get him arrested at a grocery store. Then he returns to Grant’s house and finds out he’s actually getting divorced. Dev returns Amanda’s kids and refuses a sandwich they made him in preference of a gourmet sandwich, symbolizing his rejection of kids.
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Yes, it’s very funny.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
Yes, each episode will have its own title and be a series of reflections on that theme.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Not really.  A single dude and his friends in the big city.  What makes it novel, of course, is that our hero is south-Asian, but nobody talks about that in the pilot, so it doesn’t really count.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Not really in the pilot.  In the second episode we get to know the show’s central irony: Dev’s parents went through much suffering to get him a blessed life, but he’s turned it into something superficial and trivial.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
The streaming sitcom is still a very new form, but this certainly doesn’t break the mold that’s forming.
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.”)
Dev is funny.  His life is appealing.
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?)
NA: Ansari created the role for himself, so of course he took it.  But yes, his star power helps the show.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Not really.  He’s discontent because he’s surrounded by people who have things he wants, but that’s his own problem.   New York is usually an inherently unsafe space for the non-rich, but nobody seems to worry about money ever. 
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Not really.  Everybody seems to fit into the category of striver.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Nope.  Every episode will give him a different topic to muse on.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
Nope.  Not a lot going on physically on this show. 
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Discontent Dev feels more and more pressure to decide whether to get married, whether to have kids, (and, in later episodes) whether to compromise his dignity for his career, etc.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Yes, each episode will present Dev with a dilemma represented by that episode’s title.
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)?
We dive right in.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
Netflix doesn’t really promote, but even then, not really.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Frankly, just the fact that it’s about a south-Asian guy living a normal white life.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
it’s a little too laid back for that, but there are lots of pleasantly outrageous moment, such as the little girl saying “He took me to the bathroom and told me not to tell anybody.”
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Yes, the girl will return and Dev’s worries about marriage and kids will only grow.
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?
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?)
Many fun oddball moments, such as getting excited about apple juice while buying the Plan B pills.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The jokey fun-loving actor.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
He’s discontent and longs for something settled down.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
It’s cool, I can do this, Always have fun.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Childhood: “Are you on birth control and stuff?” “Bounce house!”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Stubbornly sticks to his original point.
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?
He’s superficial, flippant, easily distracted
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Yes, he despairs of losing his fun life if he stops being single.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
Yes, Manhattan is a place where it’s fun to be a single restaurant-lover, not so fun to be a parent.
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?
He’s fun to be around, open-hearted.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Yes.  (We’re never that impressed with his acting when we see him acting, but it’s clear that everybody else is.)
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
His friends lack his open-heartedness.
Is the hero curious?
Yes, quizzes all the parents he meets about what it’s like.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
He’s great with kids.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
He shows great ingenuity when it comes to making things fun.
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?)
Well, one anyway. Eric Wareheim is a TV vet.  Noel Wells was a SNL vet. 
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes, the acting is excellent across the board.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Yes, each one has strong and well-argued feelings about kids.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
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, everyone is self-serving.
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.  Dev is self-employed.
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)?
Nope. It’s all self-explanatory.
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)?
He’s heart, Arnold is stomach, Nicole is crotch, we’ll later find that Rachel is 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)?
Arnold: Despite his looks, it’s kind of frat: “Dude, babies are boring, man”, Denise: Street: “Nobody uses that shit”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
Arnold: Self-centered, Denise: Laid back
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
Arnold: Harsh truths, Denise: Defers
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? (20/22)                                                                
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 28 minutes, which is in line with streaming half-hours.
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: He says good-bye to Rachel. 2nd act out: He agrees to watch his friend’s kids. 3rd: things end badly at the grocery store.  
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
This show will have very different time frames.
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?
NA: It’s not a premise pilot.
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
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)?
Yes, he discovers that taking care of these kids is something that threatens his sense of self.
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?
Have sex.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
The condom breaks
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
He gets a plan B pill, then after thinking about it some more, decides to watch a friend’s kids to see if he wants to have any.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
The kids.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
The main story starts late, but yes, he’s hoping to spend the whole time at the playground, until it looks like it’s going to rain.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
The kids deeply embarrass him in the grocery store.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
When he goes to return the stolen wallet, he finds out the truth about Grant
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Yes, he’s in danger of getting arrested by the end.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
He gets the truth from Grant.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
He realizes that he’s ill-equipped, goes home to keep the kids under wraps until he return them.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
It’s the opposite: He’s foolishly proactive at first, then switches to being wisely 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?
He rejects the kids’ sandwich, symbolizing his decision to reject the idea of having kids.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (20/22) (The opening the scene where Dev’s condom breaks on a one-night stand)
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?
NA: It’s the first scene.
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?
It’s a bedroom on a one-night-stand with a broken condom, so yeah.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
She was planning on finishing the sex.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
The Uber pricing.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
His boys could be swimming up into her as they speak.
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?
They both are more than they let on.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re equally sympathetic to the two of them, as we will be for their entire relationship, even when they fight.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
He wants to go get the pill, she wants to just put on another condom.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Do we need the pill? Suppressed: Are we doing something wrong?
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’s exasperated by his childlike description of what they’re doing, implying that she’s regretting the whole decision.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Not really.  They’re pretty straightforward.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Again, they’re pretty straightforward.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
There’s quite a lot of pushing and pulling when the scene begins.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
That’s the whole debate, isn’t it.
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 agrees to stop having sex and go get the pill right away.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
He talks a woman out of bed on a one-night stand.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
It’s the first scene.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will she get pregnant?
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 she get pregnant?  Will they be able to get along after this?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
It cuts out early, but not on a question.
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)?
He’s sort of an over-sharer, but we see from his fantasies that he has dreams and fears he doesn’t share easily.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
As shown by his friend’s false tale of his kids, followed by the true story.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Not really.
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)?
Dev is a proudly de-cultured character, but we’ll seen meet his parents and south-Asian friends, who will speak with cultural syntax (and the show will harshly denounce the idea of acting in an Indian dialect)
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Not really. 
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Not really.
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?
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, his talk with Grant.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Singles sitcom
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
NA: No genre elements.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Whimsically philosophical
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Yes, the various other parents he meets run the gamut from funny to poignant and somewhat depressing, which will be the range of this show.
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?
There’s an onscreen title for the episode.
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? 
Am I ready to have kids?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
The broken condom foreshadows the trouble he has with kids throughout the episode.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes: No.
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)?
Our three stars are dedicated to having fun, as opposed to most of their friends, who are setting down.
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.)
Why do they call it Plan B? I mean, is Plan A having the kid? That's a terrible plan.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Have fun vs. be responsible.
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
If you impregnate someone do you marry them?  Do you offer to take care of kids in a tough situation if you’re not sure you can take care of them?  If you’re a man, how do you handle a little girl who has to use the bathroom?
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
This is a show where the storylines will be linked thematically fairly explicitly, but that’s fine.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Almost everybody is dealing with some aspect of it.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Yes, the tagline is “Dev has a lot of questions.” Each episode will be about a new gray area.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Yes, it will all feel very real.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
There’s a just a tiny sense of racism and assimiliation worries in the pilot, but they’ll grow.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Yes and no.  We cut away from the disastrous grocery store confrontation without consequences, but the divorce in the Grant storyline certainly indicates real consequences for all this.
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?
All he does is a choose a sandwich, and doesn’t talk about the greater meaning. .
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
He seems to have resolved it for now, but it’s not hard to guess that it will continue to bug him.
Total Score: 112/128

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