Today I review the coolest TV premise I’ve come across all year!
Genre: TV Pilot – Sci-fi/Drama
Premise: A small American town on the east coast finds itself dealing with a group of refugees… from the future.
About: Whereas yesterday’s writer was a neophyte, today’s writers – Dan Dwarkin & Jay Beattie – are anything but. These guys have been writing TV forever. They’ve worked on Vanished, Criminal Minds, The Event, Revenge, Matador, Scorpion, Cold Case. They sold this show to ABC this past offseason, which, if it hits, I think will be their first created show. But maybe someone will correct me on that.
Writer: Dan Dworkin & Jay Beattie
Details: 63 pages
Every once in awhile a concept comes along where you’re like, “Wow.”
Here’s how you create such a concept. First, you come up with a cool idea. That by itself is hard to do. But then, in addition to it being a cool idea, you must also make it timely. Now you’re merging two individual things that get audiences interested in a show into one giant super-premise.
Whenever I see such an idea, I don’t get excited. I get nervous. Cause I’m like, “You’ve just achieved something that only happens a few times a year. Please… DON’T SCREW IT UP.”
And with that optimistic attitude, let’s jump into today’s pilot, shall we!?
Port Canaan is a small East Coast fishing town that’s about to become the center of one hell of a mystery. Hundreds of bodies come floating up to the surface of the ocean. Most of them are dead. But some are clinging to life.
The locals spring into action, led by the new sheriff, Jude, a former Philly cop who let booze destroy his life. He’s now got a kid his wife won’t even let him talk to. When Jude realizes just how big this thing is, he calls in the Coast Guard. And from there, it isn’t long before the FBI flies in.
Enter agent Emma Peralta, the kind of woman who’s seen enough not to get rattled by much, even something as bizarre as this. When Peralta questions where these people are from, they tell her, “America.” Where in America, she asks. Not where, they tell her. When. They’re from an America 250 years in the future.
Peralta believes that as much as she believes they’re cancelling taxes this year. But there is something odd about these people. Enough to call in some bigger guns. And when those guns arrive, loaded and ready, they strangely can’t find any cracks in the refugees’ story. When you add on that no ship or plane wreckage was found, they’re forced to face the unthinkable. What if they’re telling the truth?
Meanwhile, one of the time jumping refugees, an athletic sniper of a woman with the perfect futuristic name – Rae – finds her way onto shore before the FBI spot her. She runs into Jude and tells him she needs him. For what, he asks. Well, that’s something we find out from another jumper. You see, according to these guys, they weren’t the first to jump. In fact, there are more people from the future here than we realize.
There’s something to be said for craft.
I’ve gotten to a stage in my reading where when you don’t tell me anything about a script, I can tell whether it was written by a new guy on the block, a guy who’s almost there, a guy who’s written a few professional scripts, or writers like these guys, who’ve worked in the business forever. Before I did research on this script, I could just tell that these two knew what the hell they were doing.
The pros have an effortless ability to drift between lots of character storylines (common in TV), yet keep the plot focused and moving. Newbies, meanwhile, will jump around with more of a reckless abandon, or worse, they’ll jump around for the sake of jumping around.
They won’t actually use the scenes to move the story forward. Many times in newbie scripts, scenes won’t even have a point. They’ll be there simply because the writer knew he had to write a scene.
Think about that for a moment. You should never write a scene just because you know you have to put something there. Every scene needs to have a purpose, to have a point. Think of it this way. Treat your scenes like your script. You have a passion for writing your script, don’t you? Well bring that same passion into writing each individual scene and make those scenes as compelling and entertaining as you can possibly make them.
(If you don’t know how to write a scene, check out my recent article on them).
That leads me to today’s hot screenwriting tip: controlled mess.
Writers tend to go one of two ways when they write. The first is uncontrolled mess. This is when the writer doesn’t have a plan, a theme, any definitive characters goals. Their script goes wherever their mind takes them in the moment, leading to a messy and, ultimately, random story.
The second is a mistake that intermediate screenwriters make. I call it, controlled order. Here, the writer goes in the opposite direction. They know structure and character development so well that everything is focused, goal-oriented, and clean. Which sounds good. But the problem with controlled order is that it’s TOO CLEAN. Everything is so in-line, so perfect, that the story is obvious, predictable, and lifeless. You’re following the letter of the law and therefore you never surprise us.
What you want is option 3: Controlled mess.
This combines the best of both worlds. You get the messiness that keeps your story exciting and unpredictable. But it’s a calculated mess. The writer’s mastery of craft allows him to control it, keeping the story purposeful at all times.
If that’s confusing, I’ll give you an example from this script. When all the refugees show up, the writers have them operate as a giant group. They’re lumped in together. Emma, the agent, comes in every once in awhile to ask them questions. It’s very much “controlled order.”
However, the writers also introduce a rogue character, Rae, who the rescuers didn’t spot. Rae gets to shore separately, moves into town, and starts wreaking havoc. This is the “mess” part. By “messing up” the integration of the refugees, the writers give you a more unpredictable story. What was once clean now feels untamed.
With your own scripts, figure out which side of the fence you’re on. Are you on the uncontrolled mess or controlled order side? From there, you can figure out what you need more of to get to controlled mess.
As for the rest of this script, I thought it was great. This pilot could work as a classroom for TV writing. Not only was the pilot itself first-class writing, but it implies such a bigger world in the coming episodes. This feels to me like ABC is trying to get back into the “Lost” business. I hope they get the production part right cause this is a show I would watch.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’m a big advocate of messing up your story a bit. As much as some of you think I’m a stickler for the rules, I’m actually not. I’m only a stickler for the core rules that have been the foundation of storytelling for hundreds of years. I hate when scripts are technically perfect. That’s where I’d place yesterday’s script – Hummingbird. It was technically perfectly executed. But that was the problem. There was no mess. It followed all the beats just like you’re supposed to. I might as well have read a screenwriting book. So add the mess, guys. Just make sure it’s controlled mess. :)