What Makes a Good TV Pilot?

What makes a good television pilot? You’re going to get different answers depending on who you ask that question. It wouldn’t surprise me if the answer from television writers differ quite drastically from network executives.

I certainly know what I think makes a great television pilot. One that will suck you into the world of that show, become enamoured by the various characters and will give you a reason to continually come back to that show each week and each subsequent season.

Before I began writing this article, I decided to list five tasks that I think a great television pilot should complete. I then thought of a few pilots I would like to analyse to discuss my five points. I thought of Friday Night Lights’ pilot which is one of my favourite pilots ever. I also thought of The Good Wife’s pilot as an example of a procedural. But I eventually settled upon Deadwood’s pilot. For two reasons mainly: With both Friday Night Lights’ and The Good Wife’s pilot, I had watched them too recently. However it had been years since I last watched any of Deadwood and I’m always happy for an excuse to revisit Deadwood!

For those that don’t know. Deadwood follows the various figures and citizens of the newly formed ‘Deadwood camp’, built to capitalise on the gold rush in the area in 1876. Over the course of the show, Deadwood evolves into a town with law and order. However the town goes through growing pains to get there, most notably through the form of violence.

“Welcome to f***ing Deadwood. Can be combative!”

The first function of the television pilot is to establish the universe it takes place in. In the case of Deadwood, it’s pretty damn important seeing as the show is named after it’s setting. But not only that, the rules of the universe must also be laid out to the audience. I believe the first scene from the first episode lays this out quite well and is firmly supported in subsequent scenes within the first twenty minutes of the pilot. Let’s look at the very first scene. This is the one of the very few scenes to take place outside of Deadwood, South Dakota.

This opening scene shows Sheriff Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant who I love because of Deadwood and Justified and no amount of Hitman’s and Die Hard 4.0’s are going to change that!) of Montana territory, who is spending his last night on the job before he departs for Deadwood, looking after a prisoner accused of stealing another man’s horse. Suddenly a drunken riotous mob, led by the man who’s horse was stolen, march their way to the Sheriff’s demanding the prisoner be released so he can be hung by them. Sheriff Bullock doesn’t take too kindly to the mob. This situation, to me, brings to mind the classic Hollywood western, Rio Bravo. About a group of law men, led by John Wayne of course, who hold off a gang who are determined to break a prisoner out of the Sheriff’s office. Of course, John Wayne and his men hold out till the end of the film. Never giving in to the gang and never letting law and order slip. It’s a traditional happy ending to the film.

Deadwood goes a slightly different route. Sheriff Bullock sticks to his guns and makes sure he lets law prevail just as John Wayne did. However he does it by hanging the prisoner right there on the porch of the Sheriff’s office in front of the mob. He even lets the prisoner have a few words be said that are to be delivered to his sister. Deadwood subverted the expectation of the classic Western and the audience. What it’s saying is, this ain’t your typical Western. Take a look at a few scenes later where the audience first meet Trixie the prostitute of the Gem saloon. First of all, Trixie looks nothing like the prostitutes of the classic Westerns of yore. She’s dressed in raggedy clothes, has dirt all over her face and…she just shot a man in the head. The bullet is lodged in the man’s head, it’s sticking out slightly. Then the local doctor visits and is fascinated by the this scene of mortality. He starts prodding a rod of some kind into the man’s head purely through physiological curiosity. Once again, this isn’t your typical Western.

“Spit in your hand…”

The second function of the television pilot should be to establish the tone and style of the show that will continue on. Sometimes this is done by television shows through hiring a big name Hollywood director to direct the pilot and stay on as executive producer. As seen with Martin Scorsese in Boardwalk Empire or Brett Ratner and Prison Break. Deadwood’s pilot is directed by Walter Hill who is probably most well known for directing The Warriors or 48 Hours. Admittedly I am not very familiar with Walter Hill’s filmography but I did notice some aesthetic traits in the pilot episode that did seem to be carried on throughout the series run. Most notably putting in as many characters into one scene as possible. For example, there may be an A story involving Seth Bullock and his partner Sol Starr (John Hawkes) occurring on the streets of Deadwood. Maybe a commotion kicks up and suddenly we see the reaction of a character from a completely different story who just happened to be walking by. That character will not speak a line of dialogue but they will observe and they may never be seen from again later in the episode. But by having this character there, it creates a greater sense of community within the show that all these people’s lives are interconnected by being a part of Deadwood whether they know it or not…

Secondly the character of Brom Garrett (Timothy Omundson) is used to help distinguish the tone of the show. Brom is a man from out East in New York City. He is contrasted with the rest of Deadwood through his clothes, his manner of speaking and his lack of understanding with other members of Deadwood. He comes to Deadwood in the hope of securing a piece of land that is full of gold. He thinks he’s better than these folks out West and thinks he can secure a gold fortune from right under their nose, he’s something of a horizontal carpetbagger perhaps? However he underestimates the folks of Deadwood and it costs him his life, which admittedly I thought occurred in the pilot but does in fact happen later. Despite the fact Deadwood is in America. It’s a world away from the rest of American society. Lawlessness is in effect and as such, almost anything goes. The end of the pilot also hints at the looming Native American presence too.

“Either way this comes out, we’ll only have to do it once…”

I consider the pilot episode of Deadwood to be the story of three men. The aforementioned Seth Bullock, the Gem saloon owner and clear leader of Deadwood, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Finally the famous Western folk legend, Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine). I think the character of Seth Bullock is nicely established with that opening scene of Seth hanging the man. Seth is shown to be a man with a strong commitment to law and order. So it’s interesting that Seth would uproot and move to Deadwood, a camp described as lawless by the prisoner Seth hangs. Upon arrival in Deadwood, Seth comes in contact (though not directly) with Al Swearengen and Wild Bill Hickok. I like to think of Swearengen and Hickok as two different sides of a coin. Hickok is symbolic of the great Western myths that still live on to this day through folk tales and popular culture such as the Classic Hollywood Westerns. Whereas Swearengen is more in line with the more realistic and gritty side of that life in the 1870’s. Going back to the ‘This ain’t your typical Western’ idea I mentioned, Swearengen and Hickok are placed in polar opposites as representations of what the Western new frontier life was like back then. Seth Bullock is put in the middle of these two. The pilot throws up the question of whether Seth will be like Wild Bill Hickok and maintain his dedication to law and order or whether he could be swayed towards Al Swearengen’s mode of life.

The third function of a great television pilot is introducing characters the audience. Characters that the audience find enamouring, interesting, provocative or empathetic. Much has been made of Al Swearengen as played by Ian McShane. McShane is simply brilliant. Of course he is presented as a ruthless businessman who isn’t afraid of a little violence to get his own way. He is also shown to be calculating too in his dealings, especially in the way he sets up the scam to sell Brom Garrett the worthless claim, even if that is undone slightly by a drunken Irishman. Swearengen is such a fascinating character that it’s no surprise he became a bit of a cult figure and the pilot only skims the surface of his complexities.

Wild Bill Hickok is a little more ambiguous. He is mostly defined by his reputation right now as a famous gunslinger. The whole camp is abuzz with his arrival and EB Farnum’s reaction to his presence gives the audience a good indicator of how revered or feared he may be. Our only indicator of any weakness Wild Bill might have right now is shown during his weakness for gambling. It isn’t until the last fifteen minutes where the audience truly get a taste of Bill as he helps lead the posse out into the hills to retrieve a small girl who may be dying and the subsequent punishment of the man who was likely involved in the massacre of the girl’s family. Admittedly, the characterisation of Wild Bill is a little thin as of the end of the pilot but maybe there’s a point to that. If Wild Bill was representative of the myth of the Western, maybe creator David Milch is saying that the myth of the Western hero is flimsy and was merely a husk casing that was filled with tales and exaggerations that amounted to nothing.

It’s interesting to note that Wild Bill and Al Swearengen do not meet in the pilot. Similarly, Seth also does not come in direct contact with Al Swearengen (though he does meet Swearengen’s right hand man, Dan Dorrity). I think this goes back to the dynamic of Wild Bill and Al Swearengen being opposites with Seth in the middle. As of the end of the pilot, Seth is aligned with Wild Bill. But how long will that alliance last?

“I would use tonight to get myself organised. Ride out in the morning, clear-headed. And starting tomorrow morning, I will offer a personal $50 bounty for every decapitated head of as many of these Godless heathen c***suckers as you can bring in tomorrow with no upper limit…”

The fourth function of the pilot is to establish the formula or structure of a typical episode. Usually the second episode is a better place to establish this as the first episode has a lot of exposition to cover. But the pilot episode can at least give an indicator of the beats of a typical episode.

With a procedural like The Good Wife, CSI or Elementary, that’s pretty easy. A threat/mystery is established, our protagonists are called in to investigate, they follow a few threads till they solve the threat/mystery in exquisite fashion. Sprinkle on top some characterisation and long form storytelling and you’re done. With a more serialised drama like Deadwood, that’s a little bit harder to distinguish. Although it may not be obvious from the pilot right now, Deadwood’s structure for each episode is that they all take place on one day, encompassing the daytime and the night time. Although admittedly, this pilot takes in the day, night and very early morning of the next day.

As well as that, each episode of Deadwood, does sometimes have a mixture of long form storylines mixed in with a storyline that may only encompass one episode. Examples from the first season include ‘Plague’ where, you may have already guessed, plague hit’s the camp. Also ‘Bullock returns to the camp’ which follows two young siblings (one of which is played by a young Kristen Bell) as they try and make a fortune in Deadwood.

“God rest the souls of that family…..and p****’s half price for the next fifteen minutes.”

I’ve touched upon the fifth function of a pilot episode throughout this article. I believe the final function of a good TV pilot episode is to showcase the unique selling point (USP) of your show. Sometimes I might refer to the USP as a gimmick, mostly those procedurals with a gifted cop/medical practician. ‘He’s a cop who can talk to ghosts!’ or ‘She’s a doctor who has X-ray vision!’. One of those sort of deals. USP’s are the one of the big features of your show that is going to grab an audience and something that TV executives can market the crap out of. Other, more famous, examples of USP’s include, ‘He’s the head of a crime family who has his own personal issues and sees a therapist.’ and ‘It’s a personal and non restricted look at some of the staff of the White House including the President as they go about their day to day jobs running the country’. In the case of Deadwood, as I’ve mentioned throughout this article, ‘Deadwood is a study of a small 1870’s camp that is unlike typical Westerns in that it is a gritty look at the men who helped shape the town, both good and bad.’. The pilot episode of Deadwood shoves that in your face as much as possible and would continue to do that as the series went on, introducing more morally complex characters, more conflict for the Deadwood camp to confront and analyse issues such as capitalism, community and evil.