Poor Richard’s Almanac, with its “Lost meets True Detective” vibe, has the potential to be one of the hippest shows ever put on television. But does it put the cart before the horse?
Genre: TV Pilot
Premise: We observe the rise of a series of terrorists attacks inside the U.S. both in the present and 15 years in the future.
About: Today’s pilot will be joining Mr. Robot on USA as part of the cable network’s new edgier approach to content. The series comes from Jim Danger Gray, who served as a producer on Orange is the New Black, and Miguel Sapochnik, who directed a couple of Game of Thrones episodes.
Writer: Jim Danger Gray
Details: 56 pages (March 2015 draft)
It took USA 30 years, but Mr. Robot has finally made them cool, and they’re so confused about the endeavor, they’re not quite sure how to keep the looks from the ladies coming. All they know is that “cable cool” requires they continue taking chances, and so we get something called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
You know, it’s funny. Yesterday, I railed against a script for being too safe – for following all the beats yet disregarding the melody. Today’s script is all about melody – a very weird melody. But the beats? They’re not here. And part of that is due to the looser TV format and part of it is due to Jim Danger Gray being a fucking maniac. Maniac in a good way? Bad way? Only one way to find out.
It’s the present day and three buildings in downtown Philadelphia have just been blown up. It’s clearly a terrorist attack, but from who? We follow an eager reporter, Brooke, who’s made her mark mostly by being gorgeous, as she tries to get some gritty footage from the scene in a desperate attempt to get taken more seriously.
Meanwhile, across town, a CIA agent named Darwin is picking his sister up from the local nuthouse. Madison has always been a little off. But these days she’s spouting out every cliché homeless man conspiracy she can wrap her tongue around. You know – the New World Order, how Obama and Bush are in cahoots, that she’s been implanted with a chip from the government.
Elsewhere in the city, we meet Matt, an FBI agent desperately trying to figure out who just attacked the United States. Lucky for him, amidst all the bomb rubble, our bomber – or one of our bombers – is holding onto his last shred of life. Keeping this gentleman alive is crucial, since Matt’s just been informed that more terrorist attacks are coming. Terrorist Shithead here could be the only way to stop those attacks.
Poor Richard’s Almanac is already a whirlwind. So when we start getting randomly thrust 15 years into the future, we realize that the show has been specifically constructed to deconstruct our equilibrium. In the future, all of these characters are still alive, but working on different things.
Matt, for instance, is stealing some odd circular machine from a local government caravan, utilizing a group of rebels to do so. Brooke is now apparently his girlfriend and partner in crime. Darwin is now in a prison being water-boarded for information he contains. All of this is glimpsed through 2-3 minute flash-forwards, and as we bounce back and forth between the past and the present, it’s up to us to find some semblance of connectivity between it all.
In the end, it’s determined that whoever’s orchestrating these attacks is doing so from inside the United States government. Which forces the country to turn on themselves in order to find the moles. But what they find instead will reshape America in ways that would’ve been impossible to foresee. What this means is that our group of men and women, the ones we meet on this journey, are to become the new founding fathers of an America very different from our own.
Okay, so if I haven’t made myself clear already: Jim Danger Gray lives up to his name. This man is dangerous with a capital D. Poor Richard’s Almanac feels like it was written during an all-night coke party while binge watching True Detective, Lost, and 12 Monkeys. I’ll give the script this – it’s relentless. It grabs you by the throat and never lets go. But I’m not sure I’m being spoken to in a known storytelling language here. It’s more like someone’s grabbed me by the face and screamed at my eyes for 50 minutes. Not going to lie. I cried in fear a few times.
That relentlessness brings up an interesting question. Should we be careful what we wish for? Everyone’s saying we need NEW FRESH voices and stories. But what happens when stuff’s so fresh it isn’t even ripe yet? Yesterday, I got my standard little mountain climbing thriller where I was so far ahead of the writers, it was like watching a rerun. Here, it’s the opposite. This is a writer taking every risk in the book. We don’t know what’s going to happen from line to line, much less page to page. Is that a good thing?
What I’m always looking for in every story is FORM. Or “a plan.” If I feel like the writer has a plan in place, whether that story is conservative or crazy, I’m likely to keep reading. It’s when the writing feels made up as it goes along that frustration kicks in. The thing about Poor Richard’s Almanac is that it’s one of the few times I’ve ever read something where I DON’T KNOW IF THERE’S A PLAN IN PLACE OR NOT.
Everything is so relentless, so mystery-boxy, so “in the moment,” that it really does feel like it was written in one night. But I suppose if we’re periodically cutting to the future, then Gray has to know what’s going to happen. There has to be a plan in place.
Another issue with Poor Richard’s Almanac is that we never know normal. We’re thrust into the problem immediately with no chance to find our bearings. For all you Breaking Bad fans, I want you to imagine the series starting during the 5th season episode where Walter White is in the desert in a gun battle with those criminals. Would you care about Walter? Or isn’t it the gradual build-up, learning about this man’s situation and slowly watching him get to this point, that makes us give a shit?
And look, there are no rules to storytelling. You can start slow and introduce us to your hero or start fast with them hopping into a Cambodian village killing everyone Rambo style. But there’s a reason 99% of the first acts you see in film establish your hero’s everyday normal life. There’s a reason we meet Luke on Tatooine grumbling about picking up tashi converters, as opposed to in an X-Wing fighter in a space dogfight with Darth Vader. So we can get to know the dude and care for him before we’re asked to give a shit during a major battle.
If you want to compare apples to apples and look at TV, well, in that case there’s even more evidence that you need to start slow and get to know everyone. Isn’t that the whole advantage of TV? Is that you have time? That you can explore character before having to engage in anything action-related? Another pilot that starts with a terrorist attack and does a little bit of jumping back and forth in time is Quantico. But even that show knew it needed to introduce us to all its characters and their current lives before it was all thrown into a blender on the highest setting.
To be fair, I suppose Lost threw us into the shit right away, but then it took a step back, slowed down, and let us meet everyone. Poor Richard’s Almanac is all high octane fuel all the time.
I guess in the end I just wanted a little prep-time. Get in the cab before I was thrown on the airplane. Maybe I’m being too “rules-y” or maybe this is a preference thing, but whereas yesterday I felt way ahead of the writer, today I felt way behind. And at a certain point I stopped trying to catch up.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The opening is when you establish your character’s everyday world. This is important as it’ll help us get to know the character – their flaws, fears, strengths, weaknesses – before the shit hits the fan. This is not to say that what Poor Richard’s Almanac did today was wrong. But anything where you go against traditional structure is risky. So just know what those risks entail, how they affect your story, and try to make up for them in some way. So if this pilot would’ve found another way to introduce us to these characters (the way that Lost, for example, would flash back to their lives before the plane crash), then it wouldn’t have mattered as much that we were thrown into the mix without getting to know anyone.