by Erik Bork
“Premise pilots,” in my experience, are not seen as a good thing.
But the definition of a “premise pilot” seems to move around a bit, depending on who you ask.
Some sources on the internet say that a “premise pilot” is when the characters and situation of a series come together for the first time — and are established as something new — in the pilot episode.
This is in contrast to a show where the situation and characters are already in place when a pilot begins, so that the audience is, in effect, dropping in on a situation already in progress.
In the pilot of Everybody Loves Raymond, for instance, the situation has been going on for a while, and nothing drastic changes to launch the series in the pilot. Ray’s parents already live across the street, and the conflicts for this family are not new.
Compare this to The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon and Leonard discover attractive blonde Penny moving in across from them in the pilot episode, which creates the “big bang” of the show’s title, and establishes the new situation of four nerdy friends interacting with this very different type of person in the pilot, for the very first time.
Either approach to a pilot can work. But even this latter example is not what I have come to know of as a “premise pilot”.
In my experience with agents, producers and networks, it’s called a “premise pilot” when the situation of the series doesn’t only begin in the pilot, but it takes the entire pilot for that situation to come into formation. In other words, the pilot episode is different from every episode that will come after it — because all of them will start from a status quo of that situation already in place, and will have to create stories ON TOP OF that situation. (As opposed to a pilot where the only “story” was about that situation coming into being for the first time.)
The reason this is frowned upon is that such a pilot doesn’t really illustrate what the series will be, moving forward. And this is the number one function of a pilot — to demonstrate the potential of the series to come.
All series have a sort of template for the way a typical episode works — in terms of which characters tend to get stories (fresh problems that it takes a whole episode to resolve, in some way), as well as how many stories will be in an episode, and what kinds of conflicts and challenging situations tend to lead to stories.
One can guess at what all that might consist of, after watching this kind of “premise pilot”, but they won’t know for sure, because the pilot hasn’t illustrated that template for them, by serving as an example of what the show will be, moving forward.
What I have learned is that the better approach to a pilot is to make it mostly an example of what we can expect to see in a typical episode. This means one has to get all that “series premise” stuff out of the way quickly — getting the characters into their new situation right away, so you then have time to tell more “typical” stories in the pilot, which can represent the series more accurately.
For instance, in The Good Wife’s pilot, it doesn’t take the whole episode for Julianna Margulies’ character to recover from his husband’s infidelities and imprisonment, in order to land a job at a law firm, at which she will start to work cases beginning in Episode Two. No! She is at that law firm in the first act (of a five-act pilot), and gets her first case right away — so that we can spend the rest of the episode following the spine of that “case story”, which will complicate and build the way a case story will on every single episode of that series. Yes, there are some dynamics around her that emerge for the first time, but there are around the edges of the case story — they are not the main event of the pilot. I’d say they take less than 20% of the screen time, which is a good guideline to work from.
Similarly, in the pilot for Parenthood, you have the new situation of Lauren Graham moving her kids back in with her family, but does it take the whole pilot for that to happen? No. She does it in the first act, and then goes on to have a “story” in this new living situation that is typical of the kind of story we will see in a “normal” episode. (There are also several other stories going on, in parallel with it — each with its own main character, problem, goal, and eventual climax and resolution.)
I point all this out because it is the number one most common “mistake” I see with pilots written on spec. Most writers seem to default to writing this type of “premise pilot”, despite the fact that pilots you see on the air almost never operate this way. (Instead, they take pains to present and illustrate as much of a “typical episode” as possible.)
Even when your pilot is being written as a writing sample to try to get a manager, agent, and first staff writing job on television (which is the main reason why I think writing a spec pilot is encouraged these days), it’s a good idea to follow these guidelines, and demonstrate that you understand how a pilot is supposed to work — using it not as a prologue to a series, but as the first example of an endlessly repeatable template for stories.