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Red Right Hand: MFE: THE WEST WING: "Pilot"
*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.



Most Fucking Expected?

Yes, but also...My Favorite Episodes.

Aaron Sorkin. Oh, yeah. You knew it was probably going to happen, and it's probably going to happen again, but it's appropriate to something that might be seeing an uptick in TV spec'ing.

I'm not going to get into recapping the episode, go HERE for that. Anyone interested in writing good TV needs to look at this episode of the series, at the very least. If you can't separate your politics from your entertainment or whatever other reasons there might be to not watch The West Wing, you must watch this pilot...and all the way through, lest you miss one of the best entrances in TV history.

Here's something that, these days, is very unique in one-hour drama pilots. It's a total day-in-the-life pilot. As we meet the Bartlet Administration, they've already been in office for a year and a half. What's more, there isn't one of those crutch characters (the new guy) who the audience is supposed to identify with and follow through the episode as an introduction to the cast and the premise (and a nod to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for handling that pilot convention beautifully...and fatally). Many pilots are origin stories (a virtual necessity in the post-24 arc shows) or some kind or mark a significant change in the show's world that becomes our entry point. The Closer, Lost, or Moonlighting (to a large degree) are examples of the former. Gilmore Girls, My Name is Earl, or even Sorkin's upcoming Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (though perhaps arguably) represent the latter.

In this post-24 world, a lot of the hot shows have huge arcs and feature massive changes with some frequency. It's been noted by agents and writers alike that the current landscape is peculiar for specs. The hot shows aren't the most spec friendly. You could write a Lost, but if your main character was Ana-Lucia or Libby or Shannon this year, you got boned. And it'll probably happen again. What can you do for 24? It'll show you can start a story, or end one...or maintain something in progress, but 24's are generally not all that self-contained and the cast can, again, change radically. Desperate Housewives has lost some of it's cache, so now things are starting to spread out some. Is there really a hot spec at the moment? (Criminal Minds seems to be popular, but seriously, I want to know). This may change come fall. I expect Studio 60 will be hot. I imagine something else might emerge.

Because of this, more writers are turning to pilots and so are more readers. It's been building for years, and for many reasons, but a good pilot is something a TV spec'er should have on hand, to compliment your array of specs and to show off your own voice when called upon. There are producers who want to see original work. So, if you pilot-up, you need to decide...what kind of beginning are you going to use?

As I said, arc-ish stuff pretty much demands the "fresh start" approach. You're going to see it Heroes this fall. Similarly, it was in The 4400. My own pilots have an arc in mind, but I tend to go more on the X-Files model, or the Veronica Mars. Stand alones and arcs. Sometimes both in one episode. Probably for the reason, I have been driven to the beginning of the story.

I wrote one day-in-the-life, sort of. It was called The Ice and it's fairly unfilmable, as it is set at McMurdo Station in the Antarctic. I knew that when I wrote it, but I wanted to get it out of my head. It had a crutch character who was coming to work at McMurdo for the first time. She was my way to get some exposition out. My thing with her is that she had problems getting there and never actually set foot in McMurdo until the last page.

It would have been easy for Sorkin to start The West Wing on January 20th and go from there, if you know what I mean, but I think he knew exactly what he was doing (and so should you). With that 18 month buffer, he could build in backstory as needed and it eventually allowed for the right story to be told at the right time. "Debate Camp" showed us the days immediately before and after Bartlet's inauguration. "Access" also went back to the early days of the administration and "In The Shadow of Two Gunmen" went back to the campaign.

Maybe in your pilot you'll want to start from the ground up (though there is always some level of backstory you can mess around with). It's your call. That's the best thing (and most daunting thing) about a pilot. Everything is your call. Everything.

One day, I'm going to write a pilot about an actual pilot. Didn't Flying High do that?
©2024 Michael Patrick Sullivan
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