Friday, October 30, 2020

The Ultimate Pilot Checklist: Black-ish

Dre Johnson is an advertising executive, married to a doctor (Rainbow), living with four cute children (Ruby, Andre Jr, Jack and Diane) and his acerbic father (Pops). He’s expecting to be promoted to Senior Vice President, and gets it, but finds out that he’s only the SVP of the ‘urban’ division. Meanwhile, his son has gone out for field hockey instead of basketball and decides he wants a bar mitzvah. 


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 funny and edgy.

Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?

The tourist van driving by sort of does that: This will be a sociological study.

Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?

No.  It’s a familiar sitcom family.

Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?

He wants to be an exemplary black man, but the more exemplary he becomes the less black he feels.

Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?

It’s a very ABC show.

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 pleasant.

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, Dre.

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?)

Well, Anderson had given up movies for TV a while before, but he had starred in some movies.

Is the show set in an unsafe space?

It’s made clear in the opening that they don’t feel entirely welcome in their neighborhood and he doesn’t feel very comfortable at work. 

Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?

No, everybody’s rich.  It’s a recurring gag that he wants his son to have poor friends, but that never pans out.

Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?

Not really.  Sitcom mini-dramas will have to be whipped up every week. 

Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?

Not really. 

Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?

Big in their own way: Have I lost touch with my culture and can I save my kids from the same fate?

Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?

Sure, little parenting goals and work difficulties.

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, it’s sort of a premise pilot, in that his growing dissatisfaction with his son and job reach a bit of a breaking point, and both are established at midpoint.

Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?

The family labeled “The Mythical and Majestic Black Family.”    

Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 

Not really.  It’s basically an update of “The Cosby Show” with a bit more discontent added in.   

Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?

Sort of with Junior wanting a bar mitzvah (that was showcased in the show’s ads), sort of with the Rodney King ad, but it’s generally a pretty gentle show.

Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?

Not really.

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?)

 His wife looks like a mess in her sleep and he thinks funny stuff about her.  He imagines himself being gawked at by tourists.   Making the Rodney King ad is funny. 

Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?

Everybody knows that he’s going to be Senior Vice President. 

Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?

 He’s still feels like an angry working-class person on the inside.

Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?

”Keep it Real”, Succeed on his own terms, “I’m still going to need my family to be black.  Not black-ish, but black.”

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?

His job’s metaphor family is clashing with his background.  Ironically at his job, part of his job is to tell them how a black man would talk.  He insists that a black man wouldn’t talk differently (and gets insulted when they start calling him black-sounding nicknames), but on the other hand, he gets offended when his kids say they don’t see color.  To a certain extent, this whole show is about a clash of metaphor families (aka code-switching)

Does the hero have a default personality trait?

Cocky but frustrated

Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Absorb humiliations unflappably until he snaps.

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 thin-skinned and oversensitive to slights, both at work at at home.

Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?

He’s only going to become more uncomfortable as he gets richer and his kids get nerdier.

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?

He sees problems others don’t see. 

Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?

Yes, he proves at the end that he’s good at creating advertising campaigns (“LA is Colorful”), and that he’s a pretty good father (throwing his son a “hip-hop bro-mitzvah”)

Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?

His family has no black pride.  His coworkers are insensitive to race.

Is the hero curious?

 Sort of.  He persists with interrogating his son.

Is the hero generally resourceful?

 Sort of.

Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?

 Sort of.


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, Tracee Ellis Ross is a TV star and Lawrence Fishburne is a movie star.

Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)

The entire cast is strong.

Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?

 Both his wife and his mother make good points, from very different points of view. 

Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?

Yes, we get little glimpses of each character’s backstory, but they’re more defined by their current roles.

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?)

No, his boss is not a main character yet, but will become one.

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?


Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?

Dre: Gut, Junior: Heart, Rainbow: Head, Pops: Spleen, to a certain extent.  The other kids aren’t clear yet.

Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?

Junior: the white version of black (he calls his field hockey team the Field-Mob), Rainbow: Upper class doctor (“Breaking down barriers is equally important to money, but just so I’m clear, there is a salary increase, right?”), Pops: Working class (“…before you start in with all that mess.”)

Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?

Junior: Nerdy, Rainbow: Placid, Pops: Sour and bemused

Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 

Junior: Predict objections and prepare elaborate defenses, Rainbow: Hold her tongue, then call you aside, Pops: Mutter snipes, then pretend he said nothing.

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, 21 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?

Yes, 3

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: Finds out that he’s on the “urban” vice president. 2nd: He gives a too-black presentation and his job is clearly in danger.  3rd: “Be damned if I’m calling him Andy, though.”

Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?

One day 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?


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?


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 gets the promotion he wants but he doesn’t want to just be the “urban” vide-president.

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 his promotion and move his seat to the senior management side of the table. 

Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?

He finds out he’ll be the “urban” SVP.  He finds out his son wants to play field hockey instead of basketball.   

Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?

Yes, in the second half

Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?

His boss and co-workers behave in an inappropriate manner towards him.

Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?

He just complains to his family.  

Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?

His son wants a bar mitzvah.  He decides he’s not integrated enough at work but his family wants to integrate too much. “I may have to be urban at work, but I’m still going to need my family to be black.  Not black-ish, but black!”

Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?

Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?

He decides to give his bosses a very black ad campaign and give his son an African coming of age ritual. 

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?

He’s almost fired.

Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?

His son and father mock the African ritual.  Rainbow has found out about work and she’s had enough.

After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?

His pops set him straight and he says “Whatever you do, make sure it’s right for who you are.”

Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?

Yes: He decides to do an ad campaign his boss will like and throw his son a “hip-hop bro-mitzvah”

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: His new “L.A. is Colorful” ad campaign is very different, and he thinks as he presents it: “‘Urban’ can mean hip, cool and colorful, just like my family.  Taking a cue from my son, I decided to get my foot in the door and really make some noise.  Funny thing is, I didn’t feel urban.  I just felt like a dad who was willing to do whatever he had to for his family, and isn’t that the American Dream?”

PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (21/22) The scene where his son asks for a bar mitzvah and Dre calls a family meeting

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?

Just a little.  He’s been increasing pissed about his family’s lack of blackness.  He’s just endured another humiliation at work and we’re right to be worried that he’ll take it out on his family.  

Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?

No, it begins at the beginning.

Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?

It’s the kitchen/dining room, so they’re fairly active.

Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?

The mom’s cooking is being interrupted.

Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?

Lots of plot elements are colliding.  Junior’s friend Zach is a distracting irritant.

Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?

The kids have made it clear they have other places to be.  

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?

Dre’s having a meltdown and upsetting everyone else “Daddy’s scaring me!”

Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?

We sort of agree with him and sort of with Rainbow. 

Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?

Very much so.  Very different ideas about how to be black in America.

Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?

Surface: Can Junior have a bar mitzvah? Can the twins have a playdate? Suppressed: How black should we be?

Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?

Dre calls it out.

Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?

Not for long.

Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?

Pops is subtly egging Dre on. (“But when I say it, I’m wrong.”)  Junior tries to convince his dad to go along with the bar mitzvah by saying “You won’t have to worry about anybody calling me ‘Andy’ anymore, because when I convert, I’ll have a Hebrew name!” 

Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?

He kisses Rainbow, Rainbow hugs Junior, Junior high-fives Zach

Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?

The mom hands out food, Zach takes a grape soda without permission, which symbolizes taking their son from them (and grape soda has previously been associated with ghettoization).  Diane squeezes a squeaky toy to feel safe.

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?

”If she thinks I’m finished with keeping it real, well I’m just getting started.”  Dre gets pushed to the edge over the course of the scene.

Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?

The family gathers to commune but ends up upset and alienated from each other.

Are previously-asked questions answered?

Will Junior make the team?

Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?

What does Dre now intend to do at work?

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 have growing fear that Dre’s going to do something drastic at work and with his family.

Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?

”If Stevens and Lido really wants an ‘urban’ SVP, I’ll give them their urban SVP!”  Then we cut to his Rodney King-focused ad. 


Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?

Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?


Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?

We’re not supposed to fully agree with his attitudes.

Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?


Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?


Do the characters interrupt each other often?


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)?

Well, he worries he’s not as culturally specific as he used to be.

Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?


Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

Sort of.  We learn about the culture of an ad firm.

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: “Big butts, R&B, and dancing: Those were the black man’s go-to’s!”

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, even the doctor.

Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

Yes, when Rainbow finds out he’s almost been fired.


Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?

Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?

Family sitcom. 

Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?

There are no unrealistic elements.

Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?

Hip, sarcastic.

If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?

The impression is that there will not be a spectrum of moods on the show.  Both stories are in the same register.

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 a jaundiced voiceover.

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 accept the position under the limited terms he’s offered?

Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?

There’s an increasing sense that something will go wrong at work.  They know we’ve seen TV shows and they set us up to expect that the reversal will be that he doesn’t get the promotion, only to be surprised when we get a different reversal (he gets it but it’s only for the ‘urban’ division.) ‘Urban’ has already been set up to a ridiculous term.

Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?

He accepts the job (it’s being etched on his window) as the credits roll.


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)?

He and his pops have one philosophy (“Sometimes I feel that in order to make it, black folks have dropped a little bit of their culture”), while his wife and children have another (“Don’t you think that’s beautiful? They don’t see color!”)

Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or _ 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.)

All of the above, plus “Not that I want to go back to being the big, scary, black guy, but I have to admit, it did kind of have its advantages.”

Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?

Make money or be true to your working class roots. 

Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?

Put up with humiliations at work to make money, abandon your religion to have a party, etc.

Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?

 Very much so: He feels like he’s treated too black at work and his family is not black enough at home.

Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?

The meaning of grape soda, etc

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?

Well, like its ABC companion “Modern Family”, they’re unrealistically wealthy, so normal rules don’t really apply.

Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?

We become aware of little slights Dre can see from his unique perspective.

Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?

Yes, his first “urban” ad campaign has flashes of Rodney King, etc.

Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?


Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?

Yes, he almost gets fired, etc.

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?

No, it’s voiceover heavy and he sort of synthesizes it.

Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?


Total Score: 116/128




June said...

Wow - that was a meaty post - thanks Matt, you're the greatest - I love the way you organize everything

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