The Wire, Premises and Arcs – Oh my

So I’ve been watching, reading, and perusing pilots to such an extent that I’m going to have to cut myself off soon before my habit of over-thinking things verges off the tracks into the realm of forty-two car pile-ups and train derailments.

But before I do so…

I remember when I first came out to LA, everyone was anti-premise. Everyone I asked – and even many whom I didn’t – told me to stay away from writing a spec premise pilot. Kiss of death. Which was hilarious-meets-confusing, as just about every new show that was finding an audience at that time had premiered with a premise pilot. And the same working writer who told me that premise pilots were no good also told me how amazing Lost was in the same breath. But, whatever, such was the writerly topography.

Now, a couple of years later, everything is roses. Only not. BUT, premises are apparently OK. Procedurals and stand-alone eps rule the day, basic cable is the new tastes-like-chicken Grade-A Beef, and JJ Abrams seems yet again to be one of the last men standing.

Emperor’s new clothes.

Now, me, personally, I tend to prefer arc-based shows. I’m often suspicious of stand-alone episodes and procedurals. And the fact that I keep getting sucked into Fringe drives me nuts – and yet giddy – each week.

But here I am, watching more procedurals than ever – probably because they occupy so much more of the TV landscape these days. And the more writing I do, the less TV I can watch, and the more and more I’m appreciating those stand-alone ep shows.

But, at least, I still fight the good fight in my work. I resist the premise, I cling to arc arc arc – which I realize, big-picture-wise, means little when I’m writing a spec – and I focus on character, story and the periphery.

But in the pilot I’m working on, it all keeps creeping in; the ramparts are ebbing. I keep seeing the procedural in everything. I start to suspect that the premise story of my pilot contains the real pleasure of my concept. (And many others seem to agree.) And the arc seems to belie the value of the stand-alone structure for my story.

And so – but’s cast aside – I’ve read the writing on both page and wall, and I’ve spent the last week redrafting my outline as a largely stand-alone premise pilot. And it’s better.

And I’m not sure how I feel about it. It probably doesn’t help that I just cracked open my series box set of The Wire. I watched the pilot this past weekend – if you can call it a pilot. And I was hooked. Frustrated, confused, beguiled – but hooked. My friend P predicted my fiancée would love it as well, so the poor sucker curled up on the couch with me. But within minutes she was muttering about a lack of eye candy and drifting off to sleep.

I, on the other hand, was spellbound. I resisted, I rewinded, I pondered and deconstructed. I watched it in a general haze of confusion. This pilot resisted just about every TV rule I could name, painting just the early suggestions of a sprawling story to come. But I watched. And then I watched it again listening to David Simon’s commentary. Now, it’s not a fair comparison to, well…anything. This is clearly its own beast. It’s own, arc-laden, commitment dependent beast.

It certainly didn’t help as I’ve succumbed to premise and shifted my pilot’s scaffolding over to the other side of the playing field. It has me wondering. Am I pandering? Am I folding? Or am I just doing what’s right by my story?

But I’m going to push forward, as the story seems to merit the change. And I don’t need to stack shit up in against my favor when I already have enough to handle in capturing the tone that’s rattling around in my hand. I’ll just write the bloody thing, and pray for sweet serendipity.

And I’ll keep watching The Wire alongside the procedurals.

ps. Damn you David Simon. And damn you JJ Abrams. Lights. You got me with lights. Shit.


Josh said...

I'm interested what your definition of a premise pilot is, because I thought I was following you until about halfway through your post ... and now I don't know.

My understanding is that "premise" mostly means "set up." In a premise pilot, you spend the majority of the episode getting the characters to where they will be for the rest of the series. (Meaning, my show is about a superhero duo, and the pilot shows the duo getting together.)

At the opposite end of this spectrum is the "typical episode pilot." (In this version, the superhero duo is already together fighting evildoers and we're coming in at the middle of their relationship. Another good example is West Wing -- we start the show a year into Bartlet's first presidency.)

The instructor of the pilot course Jul and I are taking now keeps pushing the idea of doing a "hybrid," but his hybrid feels suspiciously like the "typical episode" description.

Anyway. I think it depends a lot on what story you want to tell, and you shouldn't force your idea into a certain kind of in vogue storytelling unless you can do it and still get your story out there.

And now I just sound pretentious.

adam _______________________ said...

My definition and yours agree 100% -- as I believe those are the correct definitions. I think the confusion is that I was talking about two things in my post: premise pilots, and arc vs. stand-alone. And I think I muddled some of those points.

So, yeah, we're on the same page. In vogue bad, following the story good. I think I just meant that I spent so much time thinking I wasn't supposed to write a premise pilot as a spec, and I usually resist stand-alone style stories. And here I am writing a story that seems to want both of those. So I'm following the story.

But I really interested in this hybrid idea. Even if he's not actually following through on his own proposal, I'm intrigued. Because I think I'm currently aiming in that direction. But I'm wondering if there's much of a difference between a "hybrid" and a rationalized premise pilot.

Is this a UCLA extension class?

Emily Blake said...

Lack of eye candy?

Did she not notice Dominic West all over that show? Your girl is crazy.