Genre: TV Pilot – Horror/Procedural
Premise: When the Governor’s daughter goes missing, the FBI believes the Occult may be involved.
About: This project was shepherded by Michael Bay, with X-Files alum James Wong writing. The multi-talented Wong also produced and wrote Final Destination 3, and wrote for American Horror Story. The project was set up at A&E, who ultimately passed on it, despite Josh Lucas starring. See, this is what I don’t understand about TV. You have Michael Bay shepherding a project. A guy who’s responsible for the 5th biggest franchise of the past decade. You have a movie star in the lead role. And a tiny network like A&E says, “Ehh, not interested.” Is this because it’s understood Bay is only adding his name to the show and not actually involved? What’s the reasoning here? TV guys? Help. I guess the show could’ve just been bad. But it sounds pretty cool. I guess it’s time to find out the truth.
Writer: James Wong
Details: 7-26-2012 draft (5th draft) – 52 pages
A&E seems unsure about how far they want to dip their toes in the scripted waters. The network known for reality hits Duck Dynasty, Storage Wars and Hoarders, only has one scripted show that I’ve ever heard of, the well-received “Bates Motel.” It’s only other show, a dark-looking drama starring Chloë Sevigny called “Those Who Kill,” was recently shuttered off to its sister network, LMN, which I’m guessing you’ve never heard of. Cause I sure haven’t.
That makes me believe Occult never had a shot at getting on the air in the first pace. Which is too bad. Because it sounds interesting and Wong is an established writer. Let’s see if a good show got the shaft from a network who wimped out of the scripted television derby, or if the script was never up to snuff in the first place.
We’re in New Orleans (where everything seems to be set these days – ever since they started offering all those filmmaking tax breaks), and LSU student and Governor’s daughter Alana Hutchins is out partying. She leaves the club with Abercrombie Model Dude, and while they’re walking to their cars, someone jumps out of the forest and snatches Alana away. Uh oh.
Naturally, the New Orleans FBI unit is all over this. So much so that they bring back suspended agent Dolan, a guy with a mysterious past (if you’re writing a TV show, at least one of your leads better have a mysterious past!). They team Dolan up with Bureau headache Noa Blair, a woman obsessed with the Occult. It’s her opinion that these naughty demon-worshipping clans had something to do with this.
Sure enough, Blair and Dolan happen upon an Occult sacrifice ritual, which they’re able to stop, but not before a strange feeling hits Dolan. What Dolan doesn’t know is that he’s just been possessed. Not the best form to be in when you still haven’t found your victim. That’s right, the sacrificial lamb of the ritual was yet another woman. Alana is still missing!
The duo follows a couple of basic leads (some credit card purchases, old acquaintances) and eventually runs into this guy who speaks a language that doesn’t even exist! While Dolan continues to feel stranger and stranger (he starts experiencing things that may or may not be real), Blair uses Mr. Gibberish to figure out where Alana is, who they’re able to save, just in time.
Blair then uses her face time with the Governor to ask for a special Occult Crimes Unit on the FBI. Request granted. And thus, our series begins.
These procedural dealios are tough. They’re a little easier to pull off in movie form, I feel, because you only have to come up with one big snazzy story. You can really take your time and figure out a way to make the investigation special.
But with procedural TV, you have to do it week in and week out. There are only so many ways to have your characters follow Lead A to Lead B to Lead C, and finally find the killer. Which is why I don’t generally like these shows. Once you’ve seen about five episodes of the genre, you’ve seen them all. From then on, it’s the same old shit.
That’s why I liked Silence of the Lambs so much. It wasn’t your typical “Lead A to Lead B to Lead C” scenario. They had this X-Factor in Hannibal who you weren’t used to. That rhythm of following leads was thrown off by the fact that Hannibal was giving our hero advice, and after awhile, taking center stage in the story. At a certain point, you weren’t sure if you cared more about Hannibal’s storyline or Clarice’s. It was different. It was fresh.
On the TV end, that’s the trick you’re looking for. Think of a spin on the genre that’s different enough that all those “old” scenarios become new again. “Occult” attempts to do this by having a demon possess one of its main characters, Dolan. Now, whenever the partners come onto a scene, there’s this x-factor of Dolan being able to sense things, being able to use his possession to discover clues. The question becomes, is that enough?
I don’t think so. Actually, it kind of backfires. I like it when characters have to figure shit out themselves, when the odds are stacked against them and the only way for them to thrive is to outsmart the baddies. When information is just handily given to them via the demon’s powers, it’s kind of boring and feels like a cheat. It erases all the drama from the scene. “Oh, the clue is over there.” How is that interesting?
In other words, Occult stays a lot closer to the traditional format than it tries to invent a new one. And this is something I’ve actually been battling lately. More and more people are sending me pilots, and a lot of them feel like shows I’ve already seen a thousand times before.
Just the other day, for example, someone sent me a sitcom about family life, and my big note to him was that it felt too familiar. That we weren’t breaking any new ground. If he wanted to stand out, he needed something fresh.
But a few minutes later I turned on the TV and saw an ad for “The Millers,” a show about a grown man living with his parents. In other words, the same sitcom they’ve been making for the past 20 years. I thought, “Do I have it wrong?” Maybe TV audiences enjoy that comforting familiarity a familiar set-up brings. It certainly makes it easier to relate to the characters and the situations.
The more I thought about it, the more I could see that making sense to TV people. With a movie, you have to physically get up and drive to the theater (and pay money!). So they have to give you something new and exciting to entice you. But with TV, the viewer is already on the couch. They don’t have to go anywhere. And it’s free. So maybe familiarity IS the best route? I don’t know. You TV folks looking for new shows, help me out here.
Whatever the case, all I can say about Occult is that I wasn’t drawn into it because of its familiarity. It was yet another straight-forward procedural. I wanted that HBI – that hot beef injection of something unique that made the show stand out. The occult stuff sort of did that. But it wasn’t game-changing enough to disrupt the typical “Lead A to Lead B to Lead C” formula.
Now keep in mind, I don’t watch procedurals. I don’t watch CSI or NCIS or LFYK. So I may not be the target audience here. But my gut tells me this needed something extra to make it worth going to series for.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Whatever TV show you’re thinking of writing, create a setting, or give the concept a twist, that makes every situation we’re used to seeing in these shows feel fresh. For example, in Pushing Daisies, the main character was able to bring the dead back to life for a minute. That made every single procedural episode different from what we’ve seen before – our detectives could actually communicate with the dead victim of every crime. It’s my belief that this gives you a better shot at selling your pilot than if you give them the same ole same ole.