Genre: TV PILOT – one hour procedural drama/thriller
Premise: One of the FBI’s most wanted men mysteriously turns himself in to help the bureau take down a secret list of international criminals that he’s been compiling over the last four years. He calls this list “The Blacklist.”
About: The Blacklist was one of the early pilot scripts that was getting a lot of buzz. The writer, Jon Bokencamp, has done most of his work in the feature world. I’m not sure what area of the business he originally hails from, but he has a few story credits (The Call, Perfect Stranger) which implies he may have worked in a producer or manager capacity? Coming up with ideas and bringing in writers to write them? Or maybe he just got rewritten to death and retained the story credit. His most recent credit is a “story by” credit on The Call, that Halle Berry movie that they made look ridiculous in the trailers but is actually one of the better thrillers of the past year. Definitely worth checking out if you like a good thriller. The Blacklist stars James Spader and debuts this fall on NBC.
Writer: Jon Bokenkamp
Details: 57 pages
Okay okay, I give up. NBC has been promoting this Blacklist show so heavily that I’ve finally broken down and read it. Now I’ll be honest – while I can tell you with 98% certainty which movies are going to bomb and which will do well, TV is more of a crapshoot for me. And a big reason for that is the unique model. TV doesn’t have movie stars to bring in a built-in audience. They also aren’t as dependent on concepts as films are. TV is more about the characters, which ironically works against the very thing they don’t have access to – BIG STARS.
In my little pretend world of TV knowledge, I believe a hit show comes down to four things. One: is the show written well? You have a lot of guys faking their way through this business. But when a good writer writes a show, you know it. Next, the casting. Since you don’t have star power, you have to find faces that excite potential viewers when they see the promo for the show. Three, how the show is promoted. This is huge. A bad promotion means nobody watches the first week and then, even if your show is good, it doesn’t matter because no one’s around to tell anybody about it.
Finally, I think every show has to have something a little sexy going for it. Not “sexy” in the literal sense, but just something that makes it stick out from the pack. Lost had that. Once Upon A Time, House, Person of Interest, Heroes, they all had some “sexiness” factor going for them, some fun thing that stood out.
Like I pointed out the other day – the people who buy TV pilots seem to be really into the “teaser” of your show – the opening scene that sucks the audience in. And The Blacklist doesn’t skimp in that area. 55 year old Raymond “Red” Reddington walks into FBI Headquarters and proceeds to tell the guard that he’s there to see Agent Harold Cooper. The annoyed guard makes the call, and the reaction he hears on the other end when he mentions Red’s name turns his expression into the Scream mask.
Red casually gets on his hands and knees EVEN BEFORE the FBI swarms in and grabs him. Red happens to be the FBI’s fourth most wanted man. Once they’ve secured him, they inundate him with questions. You see, Red used to be an agent himself. Until he disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was found selling United States info to every country with an “I hate America” complex.
Now the FBI wants answers. Unfortunately, Red won’t talk to them. In fact, he states he’ll only talk to one person – Elizabeth Keen. Keen is, ironically, starting her first day as a profiler, and she’s never crossed paths with this Red guy before. So she’s as baffled as anyone that he’ll only talk to her. But if you’re expecting Red to tell us why he’s chosen our heroine, both of you are gonna be disappointed. Red is keeping that secret close to the vest, and he enjoys toying with her about that mystery, which only enrages her (Keen’s got a little bit of a anger issue).
But Keen’s gotta play ball because Red happens to know of a terrorist, Ranko Zamani, who just entered the U.S. and is planning to kidnap the daughter of U.S. General David Ryker. Red doesn’t know all the details behind Zamani’s plan, but enough that the FBI has to let Keen take point on the job, since she’s the only one Red will speak with.
Keen ends up thwarting the kidnapping, only to be attacked by Zamani in transit. The girl is kidnapped as planned, and now Keen will have to figure out what he plans to do with her. All signs point to a big terrorist statement attack, but what that plan is eludes her. Her only chance is to turn to Red, who’s been bunking with criminals for four years now and understands their unique non-American motivations. He will teach her how to take down not only Zamani, but every other terrorist on his secret blacklist.
This pilot was pretty good I suppose. It was very “feature-like” in its execution. We have a classic movie set-up. Terrorist. Going to detonate a bomb. Our heroes have to stop it.
Pardon the pun, but it was EXPLODING with GSU.
My problem may have been the rather excessive borrowing from one of our favorite FBI movies of all time, Silence Of The Lambs. I mean, at one point, Red, probing for details about Keen’s life even offers the line, “You tell me, I tell you.” The relationship was so reminiscent of Clarice and Hannibal that it became overbearing at times.
And this is where we, once again, run into that oft-used phrase, “Same but different,” which seems to drive every producer’s magic formula for material they buy. For those who have crossed into the sea where we actually understand this phrase, you know that there’s still a giant question mark within it. That is, “How different or same does it need to be?” If you go too far, you risk coming up with something bizarre. If you don’t go far enough, your story feels derivative. I’m still not sure where The Blacklist lies but it feels kissing-cousins close to Lambs. You’ve replaced a serial killer with terrorists. That’s the big change. But the central relationship IS, basically, Hannibal and Clarice.
Another thing that bothered me was the safeness of it all. I was asked after I finished it, “What did you think?” That’s usually when you’re the most honest. When someone asks you point-blank what you thought. And I answered, “It was good but it all felt so…safe, like the exact kind of been-there-done-that show you always see on network television.”
And I don’t know if that’s an insult or a compliment. Because network TV is only going to go so far. They’re not going to have Walter White in primetime. Knowing how far they’re willing to go, and writing a show that fits that criteria is a talent in itself. The fact that this made it to air and is NBC’s biggest bet this season is proof of that. Whereas with features I know how safe or risky you can be in every genre, I still don’t have a feel for that in the TV world. My gut feeling is that if I would have sent this out as an agent, I would’ve gotten the response, “Too derivative.”
Moving on, I may have actually learned something today about pilots! We had one, and only one, giant set-piece. Is this the standard allotment, due to time and money constraints, whenever you write a pilot? You only get that one big set-piece (I’m asking you, commenters). Because if that is the case, I learned that since you’ve only got one, you gotta make it count. And The Blacklist did.
The scene in question is when the bad guys kidnap the girl from Keen in transit. It happens on a car bridge that’s lifting and splitting as our bad guys are rappelling up from below to get to the top where Keen and the girl are. As the grade gets steeper, cars are falling down one by one, all with people inside of them. A very cool and well-written scene (the best set-piece scenes I can always picture in my imagination as I’m reading them. This scene had that).
I guess this was a helpful read in order to figure out what kind of stuff networks are looking for with their one-hour dramas. It’s clean. It’s fast-paced. It’s packed with stakes and urgency. There are twists and turns and reveals and questions. The writing’s very crisp.
It’s just not very original. I guess you gotta go to the cable channels if you want that.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t over-telegraph your twists. Over and over again, we get these blatant hints that Red is Keen’s dad. He calls her Lizzie. He knows everything about her past. We never get the answer to this question in this episode, but it looks like that’s going to be a huge reveal somewhere in the future. If that’s the case, I beg the producers to change it. It would be the single most over-telegraphed twist in the history of TV.
In general, overly-telegraphed twists are rookie stuff. You never want the reader to be ahead of you.
Un-LESS! Unless you’re over-telegraphing cause you’re tricking the reader/audience. If The Blacklist keeps selling this obvious “He’s your dad” subtext and then turns the tables on us only to reveal a completely different twist we had no idea was coming, then the writer has successfully outwitted us.
So don’t over-telegraph your twists. Unless you’re going to use the audience’s expectations of that twist to pull one on them!