Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Ultimate Pilot Checklist: Breaking Bad

So much to discuss here! 
 Part 1: Is this a strong concept for an ongoing series? (18/20)        
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Murders in the first episode
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Flashforwards with inexplicable imagery will be common.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 Very much so.  A Chemistry teacher and his flunked-out student cook meth together.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Very much so.  A meek high-school teacher cooks meth.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 Yes and no.  It was created for FX, as a follow-up to “The Shield” (drugs, crime, edgy black humor, angry white male with disabled kid), and it mostly met their expectations but not quite (hero too lame), so they bumped it to AMC, where it was the follow-up to “Mad Men”, which was an even weirder fit, but it wound up fitting just fine (anti-hero with extreme disconnect between work and domestic life, etc.)
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
 “I am awake”.  He stands up to his son’s bullies and renews his sex life.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
Walt.
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Possibly, but they didn’t try. Instead, they took the incredibly risk step of hiring a seemingly unimpressive sitcom vet.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
It has various settings, but the RV is clearly unsafe, for many reasons.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Very much so.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Literally, in the pilot, and frequently thereafter.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
That’s a good description of chemistry.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Huge: economic threats, health threats, crime threats, moral threats, etc.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Individual drug deals.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Yes, the outlandish premise is established by the midpoint, and then we go all the way to Walt’s first deal and first murders.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
The man in his tighty-whiteys holding a gun. The flying pants, etc.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Very much so.  The already weird idea become even more bizarrely nightmarish in the flashforward.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
The killings, Walt almost killing himself, etc.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Very much so: When will each of them find out about Walt’s cancer?  When will each of them find out about Walt’s drug dealing (especially Hank)?
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Yes, Walt has now killed.
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.) (16/16)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Out of character: a meek teacher points a gun at the approaching cops. 
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Good teacher, wimpy husband.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Angry and potentially violent.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I deserve better, I’m smarter than them, my family must be taken care of.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
He references chemistry a fair amount, but surprisingly he doesn't use it for a lot of metaphors.  Instead, he uses a lot of ill-informed movie-tough-guy dialogue “We only sell it, we don’t use it.” 
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Meekness with simmering anger just below the surface.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Faux-naivite, “You think I might see inside?”
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his great strength?
 One strength/flaw pairing is science brilliance / contempt for others’ intelligence.  Another is devotion to family / willingness to kill others to help them.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Not yet, but he’ll come to believe that he must cook meth indefinitely to maintain his self-respect and his family’s economic security.  We never accept this, however, so this is one show where the audience actively wants to show to end.  In the end, the pushed the episode count just as far as the audience could tolerate, but no further.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
The flaw is the theme here, and the modern-day-wild-west setting speaks to the themes of masculinity-vs.-civilization. 
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his great flaw?
See above.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Both, very much so.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
No one else has his brilliance and they’re all very insensitive to his problems.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
He gets the lab equipment from his school, uses his chemistry knowledge to get into and out of trouble, finds Jesse through the school database, etc.
Part 3: Is this a strong ensemble (beyond the hero or co-heroes)?  (7/13)
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
No. The rest of the cast were total unknowns, partially because only Walt seems like a really strong character in the pilot.  They got very lucky to find unknown actors who were able to rise to the task as these characters become stronger and more complex.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
No, but Vince Gilligan knew that these characters would soon become stronger, so he was able to convince great unknown actors to commit.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Yes and no.  The others all somewhat cartoonishly asshole-ish in the pilot, but it’s not hard to imagine that they will provide legitimate pushback soon enough, and indeed they do. 
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Yes.  Even Walt Jr. is defined not by his CP but by is cheeky attitude.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Very much so. 
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
In different ways.
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
Walt knows the chemistry and Jesse knows the business, so they both have to explain their expertise to the other.
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Yes, Walt and Jesse remain tight-lipped with each other. When Jesse demands to know Walt’s deal, Walt just says, “I’m awake.”
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Walt and Jesse are 2-way polarized (formal, book-smart vs. crude, street-smart).  The rest are 3-way polarized for now Sky = head (constantly counting costs and calories), Walt Jr. = Heart, Hank = gut. (Each will become 3-dimensional soon enough)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Jesse: streets (in a faintly ridiculous way), Sky: mom-speak, Hank: right-wing-ese
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Jesse: sarcastic, Sky: disdainful, Walt Jr.: cheeky and frustrated, Hank: aggressive
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Jesse: defensive lies, Sky: passive aggressive, Hank: humiliation and intimidation
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Yes, Hank and Marie
Part 4: Is the pilot episode a strong stand-alone story and good template for the ongoing series? (19/22)                               
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
No.  It’s a full hour, which would be 18 minutes too long for basic cable.  This would imply that it was intended for pay-cable, but it was actually developed for FX.  They just demanded that the pilot run long, which Gilligan didn’t really have the clout for, but he demanded it and got it. 
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
No, because it runs long, it has fewer commercial breaks.  Again, he just demanded it and got away with it.
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
Yes. 1: Walt collapses: 2: Walt proposes cooking to Jesse, 3: Walt beats up the bullies, 4: Walt beats up bullies.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
This show had no general time-frame.  Episodes could cover one hour or several months. 
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
There’s really just one storyline.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
Yes.
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Yes, the first drug deal goes wrong and the dealers are killed.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
It’s a big plot, but character still rules (it helps that there are no subplots)  We even have little “character-only” bits like the odd little scene where Walt tries to put his handicapped parking mirror-hanger in the glove compartment but the compartment won’t close.  Later we have a scene of just Walt tossing matches into his pool at twilight.
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Very much so.
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
Not really, just get through the day. (This is why the flashforward is important.  He isn’t pushing towards a goal at first, so we need to see that he will have a goal thrust upon him.)
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Very much so: Cancer.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Very much so.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
With just about everybody, but especially Crazy 8 and Emilio.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He totally ignores his cancer diagnosis until the midpoint
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
The setbacks happen at the ¼ and ¾ points (cancer and the deal going bad)  At the midpoint escalation (propositioning Jesse) he is in control.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
No, just the opposite.  The first half is mostly-character, the second half is mostly plot.  This works because it’s a serialized show, and we know that the emotional fallout of this plot can be picked up in the next episode.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Very much so.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Yes, he is almost killed and realizes that he too will have to become a murderer.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Well, “corrected” is debatable, but it’s certainly a goal that will proactively solve some of his problems.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Very much so.
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
Yes. Reversible behavior: stands up to bully, has sex with wife.
Part 5: Is each scene the best it can be? (Walt confronts Jesse) (20/23)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
We just saw Jesse fleeing, unhappy to be recognized by Walt.  Jesse is hiding his car and himself, and looking around fearfully.  He grabs a tire iron when he hears a noise.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it goes from the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Somewhat, Jesse’s wanted by the law and Walt won’t allow him to inside.  They’re crafting a criminal conspiracy in view of others. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Jesse definitely wasn’t.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Just a brief bit about who owns Jesse’s house, which pays off much later.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Jesse is desperate to get inside away for the cops but Walt is detaining him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Both.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Not really, oddly enough.  They both play it real cool. 
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
By this point, they’ve basically gotten us to approve of this step by Walt, which is pretty amazing.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: Will Walt turn him in? Will Jesse let him join the business. Suppressed conflict:
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Jesse calls him out, so he lays his cards on the table.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
No, they’re both quite open.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
It’s mostly direct confrontation, but Walt proves his point by lifting the tarp off Jesse’s car and showing the license plate.  Finally, he springs the big trap: “Either that, or I turn you in.”
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Just a little.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Jesse grabs a tire iron, Walt lifts the tarp and shows the license plate.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
First: get Jesse to relax, then get him to admit that he’s Captain Cook, then get him to accept the pitch.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Jesse agrees to partner up with Walt (right after the scene ends, presumably)
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Jesse was worried that Walt (the only person who saw him at the scene) would turn him in.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Who is Jesse?  Why did Walt want to go on the ride-along?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will Jesse agree?  What the hell is Walt thinking?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Yes, the whole series concept is launched, with all of its volatile tension.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
”Either that, or I turn you in.”
Part 6: Is this powerful dialogue? (14/15)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not really.  The show would consistently have difficulty summoning up enough empathy for its other characters.  Hank and Marie eventually became easy to empathize with, but Sky (too cold) and Walt Jr. (too dopey) would frustrate even the show’s biggest fans.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  They’re all incapable of thinking outside their own needs.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
See Jesse and Walt’s discussions.
Do the characters listen poorly?
Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Yes.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Yes, the drug dealers have unique and entertaining syntax.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, both chemistry and crime.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Yes.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Even the teacher/scientist doesn’t.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
The scene outside the credit union where Jesse confronts Walt.
Part 7: Does the pilot manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations? (10/10)
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Crime.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
A mid-life crisis x 100.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Black comedy
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
There is only one storyline.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
Yes, the flashforward establishes that this will be a kill-or-be-killed show.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
Yes, a flashforward.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
Will Walt shoot some cops?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Lots: coughing, big meth money on TV, etc.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
Sort of: why on Earth does Jesse have a video camera.  Because we’ve seen the pay-off first, we don’t really notice that it doesn’t have a set-up. Also, Walt ordering Emilio to stop smoking and Emilio blowing the smoke in Walt’s face makes that seem like its own beat, rather than an excuse to have a fire and force Walt onto the road.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, he doesn’t shoot any cops…for now.
Part 8: Does the pilot create a meaningful ongoing theme? (13/14)
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
Walt and Jesse commit themselves to a pure product, different from everything else out there.
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s stated statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
”Chemistry is the study of change.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Bad vs. bad: Underpaid teachers and overpriced health care vs. drug dealing.  Which is worse? 
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Not really.  There aren’t a lot of tough decisions here.  Walt’s uniquely bizarre personality causes him to make decisions difficult that shouldn’t actually be difficult: not telling his family about cancer, not standing up to his wife, etc.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Just one storyline.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Everywhere Walt looks he sees symbols of emasculation: his fake-bacon wilts, he can’t hold the gun upright, wiping the car forces his head to the ground, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Yes, is there really such a thing as “pure” drug dealing?  Is it worth it to lie to your family in order to provide for them?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series set-up reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.  The physical, emotional, and economic challenges of drug manufacture will be ever-present.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so. 
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  The health-care crisis, underpaid teachers, etc.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so.  The next two episodes brutally rub Walt’s nose in the murders he’s committed.
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Very much so.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
There is no discussion.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Very much so.

Total Score: 117/133