Genre: TV Pilot – 1 Hour Drama
Premise: After a high school senior becomes a hero for stopping a school shooting, he decides to write a book about it.
About: This show is debuting on Hulu, which continues to be interested in creating solid content (Handmaiden’s Tale, Casual, the Stephen King Universe). There are rumors that Disney could buy Hulu at some point, which would turn the streaming service into a legitimate Netflix competitor. Aaron Zelman has written on such shows as The Killing and Damages. He created the show, Resurrection, about deceased town-members returning to their loved ones, which lasted a season on ABC.
Writer: Aaron Zelman
Details: 64 pages
A couple of times a week I’ll get an e-mail from someone saying, “Carson, why don’t you review more pilots??” There are a couple of reasons. The first is that people don’t seem as interested in discussing them. The second is I’m not happy with the current TV landscape. It’s reached a stage where there’s way more content than there is talent, and while that’s great for writing jobs, it’s not great for audiences. The only must-see show is Game of Thrones. An argument can be made for Stranger Things as well. But from there the drop-off is steep.
TV has settled into this place where there are a ton of shows between “okay” and “good,” but none between “very good” and “great.” And I don’t know how that changes. It seems like networks and streaming services are way more interested in quantity than quality, and even if they weren’t, it’s not like they have a choice. The talent is spread so thin that they’re being forced to gamble on low-level writers.
A few outlets seem to be recognizing this lemmings-like charge towards averageness and realize if they’re going to make TV “must watch” again, they need to go bigger. Indeed, we may be on the horizon of the “Prestige Television Era.” Lord of the Rings from Amazon. MULTIPLE Star Wars TV shows from Disney’s upcoming streaming service. The war will start to look a lot like the feature world, where to get real eyeballs, you’ll need to beast mode your productions. It’s only a matter of time before we hit the first 300 million dollar television series.
Until then, we’re hoping that some writer out there can come up with the next diamond in the rough. Who’s got the next Breaking Bad or Lost sitting in their “Future Ideas” folder? Might that be today’s writer, Aaron Zelman? Oh God, I hope so. Let’s check out his pilot and find out.
The year is 1999 and 17 year-old Steve Newman is a hero. He’s saved the school from dozens of people getting shot and killed when he took down his school-shooter friend, JR, a Columbian immigrant who just moved into town. Steve is being asked to write a book about his heroism with a big-shot publisher.
The pilot covers Steve pitching his idea for the book, which allows us to jump back in time and cover the months leading up to the thwarted shooting. It’s through this flashback format that we meet our main characters. There’s Steve, whose family has recently moved to the wrong side of the tracks due to financial troubles. There’s JR, whose family came here from Columbia and whose mother was a famous singer there. There’s Roxanne, JR’s provocative sister. And then there’s Devon, a sex-obsessed potty-mouth who loves getting into trouble.
I’ll be honest. Nothing happens during the flashbacks. I kept waiting for stuff to happen. But, for the most part, we’d get a bunch of dissociated scenes that vaguely set up our characters. For example, Steve, JR and Devon play a cops and robbers like game with BB guns, which was a little confusing since I thought they were teenagers.
Where the script should’ve been building towards the mystery of what happened that fateful day, it instead kept spinning its wheels. It seemed like there were several of the exact same scenes where Roxanne would flirt with Steve and Steve would run away, scared. At a certain point, I became suspicious. ‘Why isn’t anything happening?’ I asked. And then the answer arrived. I won’t spoil it. But let’s just say there was a big twist at the end.
I say “and then the answer arrived” because I see this all the time with twist endings. Writers fall in love with their twist so much that they don’t care about the rest of the script. But now more than ever, with peoples’ attention spans at an all time low, you can’t afford to go even five minutes without keeping your audience entertained. You need to always have that next mystery, that next line of suspense, that next cliffhanger, that next inevitable confrontation, so that the viewer doesn’t turn to the next show. Cause as we’ve established, there are more “next shows” today than ever.
My rule with big final twists is: Make sure the rest of the story stands on its own without the twist.
In addition to twist issues, I had trouble figuring out what this show was. My first inclination was that it was Hulu’s answer to 13 Reasons Why. It has some similarities to that show. High school. A flashback structure. A devastating event. But it’s not as clever as that show. The mystery 13 Reasons Why sets up is an intriguing one. And the tapes serve as ideal lines of suspense in each episode. This feels clunkier. There’s no device that adds an eloquent structure to each episode.
And like I said, there’s no mystery to the pilot. Without that “whodunnit” question pushing the narrative, we’re not even sure why we’re hanging out with these kids. What exactly is it that the publisher wanted to know from Steve that placed us in this flashback? That’s something that needs to be dead clear and it isn’t. We don’t flash back to the Titanic because it’s time to tell the story of Jack and Rose. We flash back because the treasure hunter needs to find out where the diamond is.
I’m also confused as to how this is going to last. One of the key differences between pilots and features is that the number of important characters in a pilot is going to be higher. You need more characters because you have a lot more time in a TV show and if you only spend that time with three or four characters, we’re going to know everything we need to know about those characters before the end of the first season. The more people there are to explore, the more logical it is that we need an actual TV series to explore them. How many key characters were there in 13 Reasons Why? I think a dozen? Here we have Steve, Roxanne, JR, and Devon and that’s it, unless you count the parents. I couldn’t even tell you what these guys will be doing in episode 3 with a story this thin, much less episode 10.
Personally, I would’ve found this pilot more interesting if it was set in the present day (2018, not 1999) with our high school kids all grown up. You could even use the same framing device, with one of the characters deciding to write a book about the incident. The big twist (SPOILER ALERT) in Crash and Burn is that it was actually Steve who committed the shootings, not JR. You could do something similar, where you jump back and forth between these peoples’ adult lives, and them as children, and over time piece together the real story behind what happened the day of the shooting. That has more gravitas than a kid a few months removed from a school shooting writing a book about it.
Then again, even the subject matter here feels dated. I wish the project the best but I’m having trouble getting excited about it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you want to break into TV, I’d start thinking about prestige shows. I see them as the next big thing. Granted, they’re going to start off making these shows with high profile IP like Lord of the Rings, but if those shows do well, they’ll start taking chances on original material.