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Genre: TV Pilot (Crime Drama)
Premise (from writer): An ambitious junkie and his severely traumatized war veteran sister, struggle with working for their manipulative crime boss father’s drug trafficking business.
Why You Should Read (from writer): The Sopranos meets Breaking Bad…. Could the bar be set any higher? Back in February when I uploaded Shrapnel to the Black List, it was ranked no. 2 overall on the monthly list. At its core, Shrapnel is about a brother and sister fighting their true identities trying to be people that they’re not in order to please those around them. Anyway, with the main goal of becoming a TV writer, the purpose of Shrapnel is to serve as a convincing staffing sample for similar genre/tone shows. It is not the most high concept of ideas and as a consequence I don’t expect to become the next Mickey Fisher with this project. I simply wrote the show that I want to watch. But concepts aside, the reason why we tune into our favourite shows each week is because of the characters, and hopefully the dried blood of my passion for the characters/story world is evident on the page.
Writer: Cameron Pattison
Details: 70 pages
Need I say more?
Who wouldn’t want to write about meth after watching one of the greatest shows in television history?
Not only that, but one of the best internet time wasters in the world is looking at those “Faces of Meth” sites. You see the user before meth and then after meth, and let me tell you. It’s the most entertainment you can have on your own outside of, well, doing meth!
But I got bad news for meth lovers. You don’t want to write about meth. Ever since Breaking Bad, half the pilots out there cover meth-dealing, heroin-dealing, or some other drug dealing. That’s the problem with chasing trends. You never know if you’re going to snatch onto the trend’s tail, or fall down on your face and watch it float away.
I’d go so far as to say Meth/Drug centered pilots are the pilot version of zombie specs. Everyone’s got one. And when everyone’s got one, there are only two ways to stand out. You have to find a unique angle that hasn’t been done before (meth addicted talking unicorns?) or you have to be an amazing writer who writes the shit out of your pilot. Let’s hope Cameron beats the odds and nails one of the two.
Shrapnel follows a rather informal narrative, jumping back and forth between different sets of characters in different situations. Our main character is Tommy Harris, a 20-something young man who lives in a small town where everyone’s struggling to pay the rent. The best way to keep a roof over your head in these parts is to… you got it… sell meth!
Tommy doesn’t want to do that. He’s got a nice thing going with his fiancé, Sarah, and despite his Drug Kingpin father, Vincent, pushing him to commit to the family meth business, you get the sense that Tommy wants to live an honest life.
Meanwhile we meet Rene, a 30-something lesbian military vet who’s in an even tougher situation than Tommy. She’s got a wife, Dani, and the two are trying to raise their 4 year-old son, Luke, despite Dani’s overbearing mother trying to gain custody of the child.
The two storylines each have their own twists. In a flash-forward at the beginning of the pilot, we see that Tommy’s killed Sarah for “the family.” We then jump back to a week earlier to figure out what led to this.
Rene and Dani are so broke they’re forced to live in a cheap hotel. It gets so bad that Rene pawns their wedding ring to pay for their room. But when Dani spots her wife ringless, she gets upset, so Rene goes about trying to get the ring back, eventually connecting with an old war buddy to steal it. As you’d expect, that doesn’t go well. At all.
There are other players involved. A young naïve kid, Chris, is working for Vincent. When he does something wrong, Vincent has him make up for it in the worst of ways. Then there’s a highway massacre where another meth-connected family mows down a group of cops.
There’s also the degenerate Mickey, Vince’s right-hand man, a soul so devoid of a moral compass, he’d probably skin a man alive if Vincent told him to.
In the end, we learn whether Tommy did, indeed, kill Sarah. We also reveal that Rene is Tommy’s sister and Vincent’s daughter, and that the only way she’s going to be able to provide for her wife and son is if she gets back into the family business, a move she’s been avoiding her entire adult life. I guess it’s true what they say. The family that draws breath together sells meth together.
I don’t know if Shrapnel’s a show. But Cameron sure is a good writer. Read the first scene of Shrapnel and I dare you not to keep reading. There’s a heavy atmospheric intensity to the way this man sees the world that makes you an audience member when you read him, not a critic.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Cause this site is about learning, I have to be critical, and while Shrapnel is, by and far, a strong sample, there were some things that didn’t quite click. Or, to use meth-speak, Shrapnel was only 70% purity.
My biggest issue is that if you didn’t tell me what the pilot was about beforehand, I’d have a hard time figuring out what the story was. Don’t get me wrong. The writing is stone cold impressive:
But as we jumped back and forth between Tommy, Sarah, Rene, Dani, Vincent, Chris, and Lou, I had a hard time keeping up with how it all fit together. And I get that that was the idea – we needed to keep reading to figure it out. But because I didn’t know how, specifically, Rene and Dani were involved with Tommy and Vincent, their story felt a little out of tune for me.
With Tommy, we get that opening scene which adds purpose to his storyline. We see his fiance dead, cut to a week earlier, and we see him with her, alive. Happy. Therefore as that story progresses, we have a reference point for what to look for.
I didn’t have that reference point with Rene and Dani.
You can sometimes pull that off if the “out in left field” storyline is compelling on its own merit, but the struggle of trying to get a job and retrieve a wedding ring didn’t quite do it for me. Without understanding these characters’ importance, I didn’t care if they succeeded or not.
One of the problems with writing “Traffic” narratives (multiple story threads that are happening independent of each other), is it’s a lot easier for the reader to get lost. A writer must ALWAYS take this into consideration so that they throw in the occasional reminder of what’s going on. I call it “holding the reader’s hand.” The higher the difficulty level of your story, the more you need to hold the reader’s hand throughout it.
Cause I needed that. I got lost. In one scene, Chris ends up sleeping with Sarah (Tommy’s fiance) while Vince videotapes it, and I guess all three parties were in on it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would do this, but it definitely felt like one of those “throw real-world logic out the window” situations. The audience always smells it when characters aren’t acting honestly, so the scenes never work. And I didn’t believe Sarah would fuck Chris under any circumstances.
As for Sharpnel as a TV show, here’s how I see it. The script definitely achieves what it sets out to do. Sopranos meets Breaking Bad is EXACTLY how I’d pitch this. And while Cameron isn’t David Chase or Vince Gilligan, he’s pretty darn good. This guy can make dirt sound exciting.
I’m just worried about the lack of a hook here (which he admits is a problem). Breaking Bad had a chemistry teacher who was forced to cook meth to save his family. Sopranos had a mobster with a therapist. Shrapnel needed something to stand out. I so often hear writers say what Cameron said up above. “I knew there was no hook but I just wanted to write it anyway.” You can FIND a hook, people, and still write the show that you want. It takes a little longer to figure it out, but it’s worth it. A hook ALWAYS gets you a leg up on the competition. And this is a competitive fucking industry so you need every leg up you can get.
Still, if you’re a producer looking to develop dark gritty TV ideas and need a writer, you’ll definitely want to sample Shrapnel. It’s one of the better amateur TV pilots I’ve come across.
Script link: Shrapnel
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: An “out in left field” plotline is a sub-plot that operates independently from the main plot. There’s zero crossover into the main plot until some point later in the story, when the two plots finally intersect. Father Karras’ sub-plot in The Exorcist is an “out in left field” plotline. The idea behind this device is to create a dramatic curiosity in how this “isolated” storyline is going to connect to our “central” storyline. The problem with these, though, is that if they’re not great, audiences tire of them quickly. They become impatient with the fact that they don’t seem to have anything to do with our movie/show. I didn’t think Shrapnel’s “out in left field” Rene storyline was bad, as the characters involved were strong. But the storyline itself didn’t interest me, and I turned on it as a result. So my advice with these, is, if you’re going to write them, make sure they’re an excellent standalone story. They have to work on their own. That way, even if we can’t figure out how they connect with our main plot, we’re still enjoying ourselves.