The Pilots of Damages, Ally McBeal, Suits, and The Good Wife: Where Do We Fit?

Note: this was submitted via email on the correct date, but I was unable to add to the blog as I was in Seattle and sent it from my phone.

For the past month, the writing team and I have struggled with nailing down the perfect pilot episode. There a ton of elements which make a good pilot. Firstly, it should establish the tone of the show. Is it dark, funny, family-based? Let the viewer know what they’re getting into. It should also have a gripping opener. This is important in any episode of any show, but with the first, it needs to bring people in to be viewers for the entirety of the series. It also needs to introduce the characters. It shouldn’t give too much away though. It should give the viewer enough information to get a sound idea of who these people are, but not so much that it leaves no room for character development. It lastly should introduce the plot for the whole season, or even series.

It needs to wrap up enough that the viewer seems satisfied, but leave enough to desired; make the viewer want to reach the second episode, the 20th episode, the 100th episode. There is of course more to the equation of the perfect pilot, but these are the most obvious elements.

In seeing if our pilot meets these criteria, it’s an effective exercise to compare what we’re doing to the pilots of notable legal dramas: Ally McBeal, The Good Wife, Suits, and Damages.

As far as tone goes, the four shows are quite different. Damages and The Good Wife are similar in that they are immersed in a darker tone. There are still a handful of comedic moments in snappy dialogue and character quirks, but it’s rarely laugh-out-loud material. Suits and Ally McBeal are more comedic, but in two different styles. Ally McBeal’s comedic style is goofy, cartoonish at times. They utilize cutaway gags, a humour device seen in other shows like Family Guy and Scrubs. Suits’ humour is found more in the dialogue, more of a dry wit than the surreal style of McBeal’s cutaways. That isn’t to say that McBeal is void of snicker-inducing dialogue. As for our show, we probably fit in with Suits. The show is a drama, but our characters have a handful of quirks that add a comedic touch. It’s seen in Scott giving his kids cereal for dinner, Zainub and Jen’s student/teacher rapport. I think our dialogue could have a bit more funny injected into it at times though, and is something to perhaps integrate between now and shooting date.

With the opening images, McBeal, The Good Wife, and Damages are the same in that they use out-of-sequence scenes. The former two use flashbacks, McBeal with a narrated backstory that sets up the titular protagonist, and The Good Wife with an inciting incident that kicks of the storyline. Damages uses a fast-forward that show the protagonist of the show covered in blood in an interrogation room. This device creates intrigue by comparing itself with the now. We want to know what happened to McBeal’s ex-boyfriend, Alecia Florick’s husband, and what the hell is going on with Ellen Parsons. With Suits, we hop right into the action, introducing the two main characters in the present. Ours is like Suits. We get Steve with the detective and his kids, then Zainub sleeping in the office. Two characters, two plots, two intros.

Speaking of the characters, all four shows do effective jobs of fully introducing the viewer to big, rounded casts of both main and secondary characters. They vary in how they do so – for example, Ally McBeal uses narration to get inside the protagonist’s head – but are all so well-refined at letting us know who these people are through the way they interact with one another, the way they speak, their ambitions, and their fears. That being said, they still leave a bit to be desired. In Suits, we still don’t know what happened to Michael’s parents. In Damages, we’re still trying to find out whose side Patty Hewes is on. With Fear or Favour, we do a bit of the same. We see that Scott is a struggling father who cares about his job, but we still don’t know anything about his divorce. With Zainub, I think she’s still lacking a juicy backstory. As a class we’ve talked about family stuff, so it may be worthwhile to shoot a bit of this – even just a taste – into the pilot.

As far as the plots go, they all vary in terms of serialization. Both the Good Wife and Suits have serialized and procedural plots. They have running lines that last the length of the season, but also have single legal cases that are resolved by the end of the episode (the car-jacking and the office sexual harassment). With the other two, the focus is mainly on continuous plot lines, with some of the questions raised by these lines answered by the end of the episode. With ours, having a procedural case is almost completely impossible with our short episodes, so it makes sense for us to be serialized. We can definitely learn from the twists and turns in these procedural plots however and apply similar devices to our long-form plot.

Four big, strong, muscular legal shows, and our wimpy webseries trying to find a spot. However, from examining these pilots, it’s comforting to see that we’re doing a lot of the things that make these shows great.

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