Rulebook Casefile: Act Breaks in Modern Network Sitcoms

35 years separate the earliest and latest sitcom we’ve looked at, “Cheers” and “The Good Place”. Both are NBC Thursday night sitcoms featuring Ted Danson, but a lot has changed in that time.

Every early “Cheers” episode had a teaser, opening credits, commercial, Act 1, commercial at the midpoint, and Act 2. I think in later years they may have added another commercial at the end with a tag after it. These days, all network TV has a lot more commercial breaks, which means a lot more acts. This is for three reasons:

  • Shows are shorter to allow for more ads (22 minutes instead of 26)
  • Advertisers realized they didn’t want to be the middle ad of a five-ad break, so each commercial break has gotten shorter.
  • Networks now like to have no ads between shows to keep you watching the next one, which just makes sense.

The result is that a half hour now has as many commercial breaks (4) as an hour used to have, and when you write a half-hour spec pilot intended for network, you’re supposed to indicate those four act breaks in your script (and a fifth act break at the end, of course).

(Of course, you might say, “That’s super-annoying, I’m not going to do that, I’ll just say that my sitcom is for Netflix or HBO and include no commercial breaks, but if you do, know that the person reading your script will expect it to meet the content expectations of those networks. If it’s obviously a tradition sitcom without breaks, they’ll call foul.)

I don’t have a copy of the “Good Place” pilot taped off TV, but let’s look at where the act breaks seem to have been:

  • 1st act out at 3:17: Eleanor is invited out to see heaven. ”Did I have a purse? No, I’m dead. Right. Okay.” Cut to the brief opening credits.

A commercial would traditionally go here, but I wonder if it really did. One tricky thing about this pilot is that the twist is such of big part of it, both because it makes the show a lot more interesting, and because the main character seems sort of bland before we find out she’s an imposter. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on first airing, they skipped this break. But still, if you were writing the pilot, this would count as a break, and it’s just interesting enough to provide one.

  • 2nd act out at 9:36:  Eleanor hits Chidi with the news that she doesn’t belong there. “There’s been a big mistake, I’m not supposed to be here.” “Wait, what?”

This is the closest thing to a midpoint break, but storywise it’s more like a late ¼ point break, in that this is where the concept is really established, the plot begins, and the character becomes interesting. This is a great twist and a great break.

  • 3rd act out at 17:03: Eleanor gets fed up with trying to behave at Tahani’s party. “I just have to go upstairs and steal a bunch of gold stuff.”

This is close to the ¾ point, but it’s more like a late midpoint break. Having Eleanor try to fit into this world is officially a disaster, so the easy way (bluffing it) won’t work.

  • 4th act out at 20:38: Chidi makes Eleanor see that her badness is causing the world to fall apart. “Eleanor, this is all happening because of you.” “Ah, fork me.”

At this point, the acts are getting very short, which is typical of modern shows. They cram most of the ads into the second half. This one provides a literal spiritual crisis, so it’s a good final ad break.

  • Ending at 22:50:  Eleanor demands that Chidi join her conspiracy. “My soul is in your hands, soulmate. What’s it gonna be?” “Oh, stomachache.”

Ideally, the plot engine (what the hero will do every week) would be established at the midpoint at the latest, but in this case, as we’ve discussed, it’s not until the final moment, or presumably just after the final moment, when Chidi agrees to tutor her.

So that’s how to do network ad breaks these days. Each one has to be interesting enough to keep us from changing channels, which is hard to do four times, but these qualify. Schur had a dozen seasons of network TV under his belt at this point and he was an old master at the ad break business.

Straying from the Party Line: The Unsustainability of “The Good Place”

I don’t want to talk about it much, for fear of ruining this amazing first season for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but suffice it to say that the season finale (episode 13) ends with a twist that completely blows up the concept of “The Good Place”. Season 2 is an entirely different show which also ends with a finale that blows everything up, and season 3 began last week, starting over from scratch. It certainly seems impossible that this show will last for 125 episodes like “Parks and Recreation” did.

Why do this? Schur seems to be tired of stretching things out for “six seasons and a movie” on his previous shows and now he’s ready to just blow his wad on a jaw-dropping, mind-bending thrill ride, one with no interest in creating familiar comforts, week after week and year after year. And the result is certainly amazing to watch.

The show’s biggest twist arrived at the end of episode 13, but there were little twist-cliffhangers at the end of every episode, which is part of what made it so bingeable. Many of these twists seemed juicy enough to sustain multiple episodes, but Schur and his writers wrung each of them dry one episode at a time, almost willfully. The show never had romance foremost on its mind, though of course that’s a classic slow-burn show sustainer, but this show had one episode (ep 10, iirc) where it quickly tried out and dismissed every possible pairing, then moved on. (Some would be revisited in season 2, and I got the feeling they wished they hadn’t already dismissed them in season 1)

But the second season, while great, is not as great as the first, which begs the question, could they have sustained the original premise if they had wanted to? Could Eleanor’s quest to prove she belonged in heaven by becoming a better person every week have gone on for a syndication-friendly 100 episodes? How many different ways are there to try to be a better person? For that matter, could the mystery of how she got there have unspooled much more slowly?

Maybe? The number one strength that used to be prized in sitcom writers was the ability to create the illusion of growth and change without ever upsetting the status quo. If the show had stuck with its original premise, it could have easily gotten dreadful, or perhaps it could have gotten richer as it progressed far more gradually. We’ll never know.

Let’s look at more checklist boxes this show doesn’t check:
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No, it’s not really a strong plot engine.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.
These would have had to be tweaked. There would have to be a more episodic plot engine, where Eleanor, could, perhaps, have interacted with one new arrival in every episode. Eleanor’s flaw would have needed more of an upside: The others in heaven would have had to find her cynicism more charming (like Hawkeye on “MASH”). The thematic dilemma (be yourself or be a better person) would have had to be tilted less heavily to one side, which is to say that she can’t have been so resolutely awful and irredeemable in her previous life. We would have to think “Maybe she should just be herself”, which is something we never think on the actual show.

I came up with this checklist on the assumption that every show needs to last for at least 100 episodes to be syndicatable and make its money back, which was the old rule. But the rules are changing. I have no idea how much money this show made from Netflix binges, but maybe that money gave it a reason to be less like weekly comfort food and more of an intentionally unsatiating binge fest. Maybe Bell and Danson didn’t want to sign 7 year contracts, so the show never intended to last very long?

So should this change how you write pilots? That’s up to you. Do you want to show that you can create a classically satisfying and sustainable show, or that you’re here to do something new, even if that means burning it all down?

Rulebook Casefile: Head-Heart-Gut in “The Good Place”

It’s been a while since we talked about head-heart-gut polarization. To review, in some stories every character is three-dimensional, and that can work well, but it’s not the only way to tell a great, sophisticated story. Just as often, if not more often, the three main characters are polarized so that one is all-head, one is all-heart, and one is all-gut. (Sometimes this only applies to the three sidekicks and the main character is three dimensional.) In other stories, with bigger casts, some of these body parts are split up further. Sometimes, if you have three gut characters, they can be dived into spleen, stomach and groin.

The “Good Place” pilot has only three main characters and it’s a great example of classic head-heart-gut polarization. Eleanor is all gut: Hungry, horny, raunchy, selfish, insulting, etc. Chidi is all-head: An ethics professor, he overexplains and overthinks everything. Michael is (or seems to be at this point in the show) all-heart: a glowing, angelic, open-hearted lover of life and the world, bestowing care and affection wherever he goes.

This creates classic comedy and significant meaning as well. We see ourselves in all three, and different parts of our own 3-dimensional personalities identify humorously and painfully with each of the three in turn, thinking “Yes, I can go to that extreme sometimes and it’s so embarrassing when I do!”

Any polarized story is ultimately about how we need to integrate ourselves to evolve, and each of these three end up going on (or seeming to go on) a season-long quest to discover their missing elements. Eleanor tries to learn to be a smarter, more compassionate person. Chidi tries to learn to trust his gut and fall in love. (It’s telling that dealing with Eleanor gives Chidi a stomachache, as she reminds him of his missing organ.) Michael explores what it means to be human, especially in dealing with Eleanor, the first non-angelic human he’s had to deal with.

This show will soon expand to become a six-member ensemble, and it’s interesting to see where the new ones end up:

  • Janet is clearly a second head: an actual repository of all knowledge, unable to understand human emotion. Why isn’t she too similar to Chidi? Because her serenity is so different from his neurosis.
  • When Jason is revealed, he will clearly be a second gut. He will become stomach/groin, and Eleanor will become more spleen/groin. He’ll have some heart to him, too, though.
  • But where does that leave Tahani? Her main character note is “snooty”, which usually lines up with head (Think Fraiser or Winchester), but she’s not a therapist, doctor, or intellectual. She’s sort of a fake-heart, as her background is revealed to be an effective but smugly-self-satisfied philanthropist. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit well into this dynamic. What do you think? Where would you put Tahani?

“The Good Place” is a deep and sophisticated show. Like “Star Trek”, it’s a journey into inner space (and inner conflict) as much as to other worlds. By embodying our three-part personalities in three extremes, each episode re-creates our inner debate as we deal with ethical dilemmas in our own lives.

Rulebook Casefile: Fantasy is What It Feels Like

I’ve said before that straight drama shows us what life is like, but genre shows us what it feels like. Our high school life wasn’t really like “Buffy”, but that’s how it felt, with the world ending every week. “The Good Place” is too weird to have any one genre, but it’s clearly an unrealistic fantasy show, and it very much captures what life feels like.

Specifically, the show captures what it’s like to be on Facebook, where everybody else seems like a perfect person and you feel like a loser-creep compared to them. There’s a hilarious montage in the pilot of everybody talking about how ludicrously angelic they were back on Earth (“Well then he said, ‘you can’t give me both your kidneys, you’ll die’, and I said ‘But you will live. And I know we just met on this bus ten minutes ago, but you seem nice’”). We can’t help but be on Eleanor’s side, because we’ve all felt like her and we have no idea what it’s like to feel like them. I ask again, when was the last time you saved a cat?

I’ve also talked about how every hero should have a public identity that contrasts with their private self, and Eleanor is the ultimate example of that. We begin with Michael summing up her wonderful selfless accomplishments, but only she knows that this was another Eleanor, and she’s actually a terrible person, and there’s been a terrible mix-up. We’ve all felt that way: It’s imposter syndrome, times ten. I’ll go back to that quote from Dylan I’ve used before: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” That’s literally the dilemma she faces.

“Parks and Recreation” was one of the most realistic sitcoms ever, reveling in the mundanity of empty bureaucratic lives in a nowhere town. Schur was shocking us in a different way: Can you believe that a show can be this mundane and low-stakes? “The Good Place” couldn’t be more different, in setting, genre, and tone, but both shows show us lives we can fully identify with, in very different ways: one because of its everyday realism, one because of its fantastical exploration of how life feels, writ on a wild, supernatural canvas.

Straying from the Party Line: The Pros and Cons of the Very High Concept

When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to get noticed, but one way to do it is with a very-high-concept pilot. I’ve said before that it’s good if there’s something bold, weird, and/or never-before-seen about the concept of your spec pilot. “The Good Place” qualifies in spades.

(Of course, the rules are different when you’re trying to get noticed vs. when you’re actually trying to get something on the air. A script like “The Good Place” is actually a very hard sell to a network, and NBC seems to have only reluctantly aired it, because Schur had made them a lot of money and because the script attracted Bell and Danson.)

But this script also shows how hard it is to write a very-high-concept pilot that satisfies traditional audience expectations. Let’s look at some of the checklist items it didn’t check:
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
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)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
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?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and Eleanor won’t really try to start becoming a better person until next week. 
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
No, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so its not comfortable to watch.  We don't say, Ah yes, the familiar comforts of this genre!
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
It simply takes a long time to establish this never-seen-before setting. We spend the entire teaser and first act just learning the rules before we find out anything about our hero. There’s even an orientation video that we and Eleanor have to stop and watch to help us understand. Normally, power points are a bad sign, especially if we don’t care about the hero yet, but in this case, the show gets away with it, because the world is so interesting (and Danson is so appealing).

The downside of this long set-up is that it takes a long time to meet our hero and the real plot driver for the series is not established until the final minutes, leaving no time for a foreshortened example of a typical plot, which viewers crave before they commit to the show. We don’t get to see Chidi helping her yet.

But this show was not a big hit on first airing. It was only when it appeared on Netflix and people could binge the first season that it caught on, to the extent that it has. This wasn’t made by Netflix, it’s still sort of a “Netflix show”, paced more for a binge than for watching week to week, and I think that’s becoming more of the norm, so maybe you can get away with it more now. Or at least Schur can. For a spec premise pilot by an unknown writer, you’d probably still want to have a foreshortened plot taking up the second half, to show that the show will work, which means that your pilot maybe can’t be this super-high-concept.

Don’t get me wrong: In this case, the big risk pays off beautifully.  Your jaw is on the floor the whole time in a delighted way.  As the above still shows, the rules are actually fun to figure out, and the break from sitcom routine is very refreshing.  Schur’s other sitcom on the air now, “Brooklyn 9-9” has what could be called an overly-familiar TV setting, which is a limitation that show must overcome.  This show, to put it mildly, doesn’t have that issue.  Yes, it doesn’t meet all of our expectations, but it teaches us to rewrite our expectations, and once we realize how appealing it is, we’re more than willing to do that.


The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: The Good Place

Eleanor Shelstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is told by a man named Michael that she has died in a shopping cart accident, but the good news is that she’s gone to “The Good Place”, a heavenly realm reserved for only the best people. Michael shows her to her dream house and her soulmate, Chidi, then leaves them together. Eleanor quickly admits to Chidi that there’s been a mix-up and she’s actually a terrible person. That night they go to a party hosted by their neighbors Tahani and Jianyu, but Eleanor steals shrimp and calls Tahani a giraffe. They awake the next morning to find the realm being attacked by giant shrimp and giraffes. Chidi says that Eleanor’s badness is disrupting this world and she must come clean. Eleanor has another idea: Chidi can teach her how to be a good person so she’ll fit in. He reluctantly agrees.
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?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
Very much so: A jaundiced view of heaven though the eyes of a terrible person.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Very much so: A dead woman and her afterlife-manager and her ethics coach.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Heaven is annoying.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Sort of?  NBC has never put its full weight behind the show, and seems to have made it as a favor to Schur for his other shows.  I think you could safely say this is a show that meets nobody’s “content expectations.”
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.”)
More so in the second episode, where they learn they can fly, and we get into the “wish fulfillment” aspect of the show. 
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)?
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?)
Yes.  Bell had a minor movie career.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Once the shrimp and giraffes attack, we realize that it is.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Yes, Eleanor has class resentment of Tahani
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Not really.  It’s not really a strong plot engine, and it would run out by the end of the first season.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
More cerebral, certainly, but we sense from the pilot that they’ll be kept on their toes physically as well.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes, she’s trying to save herself from eternal torment.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Only slightly: She’ll have a different moral knot to untangle in each episode, and she must solve the mystery of how she ended up there.  (Other mysteries will soon present themselves as well.)
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)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
Many!  Giant shrimp and giraffes attack!  Even the color scheme and font feel unique. 
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Oh my yes.
Is there a “Holy crap!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Sort of: When we find out she’s a terrible person.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
How did she end up there?  Is there something sinister going on? A potential romance with Chidi.
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?
Eleanor and Chidi enter into their conspiracy.
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?)
Sort of: ”Did I have a purse?  No, I’m dead.  Right.  Okay.”  It’s tricky, because they haven’t revealed her true personality yet at this point, but they still have to give us just enough to get us to like her in a kind of generic way before they can get us to like her specifically.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
A perfect person
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
A terrible person
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I don’t need anybody, the world is a terrible place, live for today
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Cursing, but she can’t curse here, which means the show actually gets away with a lot of cursing: “Fork me”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Guilt you into doing it.  “My soul is in your hands, soulmate, what’s it going to be?”
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
She’s mean-spirited.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite, which is why this concept proved to be untenable past 13 episodes.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
What happens when a rotten person who lives for today faces eternal judgment?
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 or her great flaw?
 She cuts through the bullshit, both on Earth and in heaven.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Well, she was good at her job defrauding old people.  She’ll be pretty good at her job of conning her way into heaven, but we don’t have much sense of that yet in the pilot.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, everybody seems dippy compared to her.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.  She’s got a big mystery to solve.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not really.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Well, she’s in a unique position, but no, she doesn’t really have any special skills.
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?)
Just one: Michael.  The other roles went to totally unknown actors.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes, they’re all great. 
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Very much so, though we only really get to know the three in the pilot. 
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Well, the whole point of heaven is that you get defined by your backstory, but we don’t get much of that in this episode.  We judge people based on how they act here.
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.)
Well that’s what it’s all about, right?  Eleanor certainly does, and later we’ll learn that the others are doing the same.
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?)
The boss is part of the cast, and Eleanor and Chidi put themselves in charge of their own conspiracy. 
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)?
Yes, Eleanor
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Not really.  Everybody tells her.    There’s even a power point.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Chidi is head, Michael is heart, Eleanor is gut.  (These will change over time)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Michael: Kindly gentleman: “Shall we?”  “Funnily enough…”
Chidi: Ethical hair-splitter “Technically…”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Michael: Warm-hearted
Chidi: Supportive but exasperated
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Michael: Seemingly plain-stated solicitous to all questions. Doesn’t have to talk anybody into anything yet.
Chidi: Appeals to morals
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
In this case, it’s the hero, Eleanor
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (17/22)                                                                
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?
22 minutes.
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
Yes, three breaks
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)?
1st act out: She’s invited out to see heaven. 2nd act out: “There’s been a big mistake, I’m not supposed to be here.” “Wait, what?”. 3rd act out: “I just have to go upstairs and steal a bunch of gold stuff.”  4th act out: “Eleanor, this is all happening because of you. “Ah, fork me.” 5th act out: “My soul is in your hands, soulmate.  What’s it gonna be?”  “Oh, stomachache.”
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes, 24 hours will be common.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
There’s 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?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and they only establish the premise at the end. 
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)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
No.  The characters will grow very deep and rich over time, but the pilot is more about plot.  This is a downside of high-concept ideas. 
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)?
Well, the reward is high, but she really doesn’t want to go straight.  She will reluctantly try to be a better person, but she really just wishes she could go to a “medium place.”
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?
Fake it, mostly by staying quiet.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Well, the major change in the status quo happens before the episode begins.  The troubling situation comes when she sees video of Eleanor’s life shot from her POV, which confirms that she’s been falsely identified. 
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, she confesses to Chidi and asks for his help.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
He resists.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
She thinks it won’t be that hard.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
She just realizes as a result of the party that it’ll be harder than she thought.  
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She talks with Chidi about how hard it’ll be.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Yes, when the world starts falling apart.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Again, the shrimp and giraffes.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Just at the end: Get coached by Chidi
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
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?
She decides to become a good person.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (18/22)  Eleanor and Chidi react to the crisis
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 them freaking out.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Well, there’s an apocalypse going on outside, and there’s someone knocking on the door, so sort of. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Chidi is reluctant to have this conversation.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Someone is knocking on the door.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Very much so.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
He is tortured by it. 
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re sympathetic to both, but ultimately on her side.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Very much so.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Help me.  Suppressed: Admit that life isn’t black and white.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
She calls it out.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
”My soul’s in your hands, soulmate.”
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
She keeps walking closer to him and pointing a finger in his face, but she never quite touches him. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
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?
Well, it stops just before he commits to her plan, but we can tell he will. 
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
What’s going on?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will their plan work?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re very afraid.  She’s afraid that the person at the door will see she’s wearing the wrong clothes.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
”What’s it gonna be?”
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not yet.  Tahani and Jianyu/Jason are looked down on, so far.  It also doesn’t seem that Janet will have any depth yet.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  Nobody can see what the others are going through.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes, Janet corrects Eleanor.  “I wasn’t that into him anyway.” “Yes, you were.”
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
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)?
Not really with the main characters.  Michael is not associated with any one culture, Eleanor is sort of generically “white trash”, but not in a culturally specific way.  Chidi is African and speaking French which has been translated into English, so his language has been de-culturized.  In the pilot, only Tahani is culturally specific.  Later, Jason will be, brilliantly.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Well, Chidi very believably speaks like an ethics professor, and his profession will come to dominate the show.  
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Do ethics professors have tradecraft?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
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)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Well, one of the characters is a professor, but Eleanor speaks very plainly.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Sort of, Eleanor thinks about her parents in hell.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Nothing we’ve ever seen before. 
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes, this is basically a show about what it feels like to be on Facebook, where everybody else seems like a perfect person and you feel like a loser-creep compared to them. 
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Quirky, light, bright, surreal
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Just one storyline.
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?
No, we jump right in. 
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 she be found out?”
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We get little hints that Eleanor isn’t who she appears to be (“You were buying a bottle of Lonely Gal Margarita Mix for One”) and little threats that this place can turn threatening.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Not definitively, but now she has a plan for never being found out.
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)?
They have their own neighborhood in heaven, where Michael is trying something different than the other neighborhoods.
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 statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
Sort of: “There should be a medium place.”  Eventually, she will win over many people on the show to this point of view.   
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Be yourself or be a better person?
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Do you help your soulmate even though you know it’s ethically wrong?
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
There’s just one storyline
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
The sizes of the houses, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Very much so.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Life is unfair.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Sort of.  Our hero is not a member of the moral 1%, but feels like she is entitled to their reward, not eternal torment. 
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Strange consequences, but real.
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?
Yes, it ends hastily.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.  The original premise only lasted 13 episodes because it was not irresolvable.  
Total Score: 105/128

Straying from the Party Line: Moral Hypocrisy in Stranger Things

You guys know I hate moral hypocrisy in stories. You should not, for instance, hold your heroes to a different standard than your villains. The one aspect of “Stranger Things” that I really didn’t like was the fact that Eleven kept casually killing people throughout the series. I didn’t like it for several reasons:
  • The series didn’t seem to have the time or the inclination to deal with the weight or ramifications of these killings, either for Eleven or the for the victims. The two agents she seemingly kills in the pilot (in the kitchen of the diner) disappear off screen so quickly, you hardly notice them.
  • Instead, the killings are presented in a stereotypically “badass” way. I especially hated it when she cocks her chin to snap two guards’ necks in a flashback in a later episode.
  • Worst of all, the story doesn’t need all this killing. She could just as easily have incapacitated these people by putting nightmares in their heads that make them collapse in horror, or made them writhe in pain with nosebleeds, or simply knocked them out psychically. Those all could have looked just as badass.
This is a series that’s all about the pain caused by the disappearance of a 12 year-old boy, but isn’t the death of each of these random government employees (who may not completely realize they’re working for a bad guy) just as sad? These guys aren’t exactly wearing Nazi armbands.

Such killings also constitute a big plot hole. As we see, family members tend to demand the truth when people disappear, and presumably Dr. Brenner would have his hands full at this point dealing with aggrieved relatives. (And that’s not even counting all the people killed by the monster or disappeared into the Upside-Down!)

Like a lot of stories that were actually made in the 80s, this series tries to walk a tricky line: a horror story about kids that will hopefully be equally appealing to teens and grown-ups: A celebration of innocence and experience at the same time, juxtaposing and combining the sensibilities of Mike and Hopper. For the most part, the series succeeds wonderfully, but I think it would have been even better if she was just knocking all those people out (in a horrific and badass way, if you prefer).

Rulebook Casefile: The 13 Member Ensemble in “Stranger Things”

The “Stranger Things” pilot has a lot of work to do. First and foremost, it has to introduce 13 main characters (really 14, because we assume the cook will be a character as well) and get us to like/love most of them. Let’s look at them and why we like them:
  • Mike Wheeler, amusingly serious about his dorkiness
  • Lucas Sinclair, shares out exasperation with the other nerds
  • Dustin Henderson, sweet-natured
  • Will Byers, touchingly innocent
  • Eleven, bad-ass, stuck in a harrowing situation
  • Jonathan Byers doesn’t really make an impression yet.
  • Nancy Wheeler is less sympathetic, but we empathize with the thrill/confusion/fear of a new relationship.
  • Steve Harrington, a witty cad.
  • Barb Holland, touchingly dorky.
  • Sheriff Jim Hopper, amusingly boorish.
  • Joyce Byers, we empathize with her horrible situation and economic struggles.
  • Karen Wheeler doesn’t register, she’s just a hectoring mom.
  • Dr. Martin Brenner, an intriguing psychopath
To make things harder, the pilot eschews the easiest and most traditional way to introduce a large ensemble: We could meet Mike first and then meet the other twelve from Mike’s point of view, sharing his limited perspective on their lives, but instead we get several separate introductions:
  • First Mike, Lucan, Dustin, Will and Karen get their shared intro scene.
  • Then we discover Nancy from Dustin’s POV, but only a glimpse, so the scene with Nancy and Barb (and then Steve) essentially serves as its own independent introduction scene.
  • We meet Joyce and Jonathan in the context of Will, but they essentially get their own independent scene.
  • Hopper, Eleven, and Dr. Brenner each definitely get their own very individualized into scenes.
So how does the show cram all this into 45 minutes and still have time for a plot? It relies a lot on well-worn tropes. This isn’t just a show set in 1983, it’s a loving pastiche of books, movies and TV from that era, so it introduces most of the characters using the types of scenes we know well.

The Nancy/Barb/Steve storyline is a total cliché, but it gets away with it because we get the sense that it’s all kind of a joke that it’s so familiar. We’re half-identifying with the characters, and half outside of the show, thinking, “They really nailed the pop culture of that era.” This gives the show access to shorthand characterization that allows it to quickly set up its world.

This show is a testament to the fact that audiences love familiar tropes as long as they’re re-contextualized in an interesting way. Every storyline is derivative here, but they’re derived from an interesting mix of sources (“Akira” meets Pretty in Pink meets Stand By Me meets Alien meets...) and recreated so lovingly that we’re delighted, not offended.

Rulebook Casefile: The Thematic Question of Stranger Things

Let’s look at the second scene in the pilot for “Stranger Things”. After a scary glimpse of a monster killing someone in a government lab, we cut to four kids playing “Dungeons and Dragons” in a basement. Mike, is both the creator of the campaign and dungeon-master:
  • MIKE: Wait... do you hear that? Boom! Boom! BOOM! That sound... it didn’t come from the Troglodytes. No. It came from something behind them...
  • Mike slams a LARGE TWO-HEADED MONSTER MINIATURE onto the map.
  • The boys stare. Shit.
  • LUCAS: We’re all gonna die.
  • MIKE: Will, your action.
  • Will swallows. God, he wishes it wasn’t his turn.
  • WILL: I -- I don’t know --
  • LUCAS: Fireball him --
  • WILL: I’d have to roll thirteen or higher --
  • DUSTIN: Too risky. Cast a protection spell--
  • LUCAS: Don’t be a pussy! Fireball him!
  • DUSTIN: Protection spell -- !
  • MIKE: The Demogorgon is tired of your silly human bickering. It steps toward you. BOOM!
  • MIKE: Another step. BOOM!
  • DUSTIN: Cast protection!
  • MIKE: It roars in anger --
  • Will rolls the dice. Too hard. The dice scatters to the other side of the room. It lands in front of the bedroom door.
So what all does this exchange do for the story?
  • It foreshadows the fact that Will is about to be attacked by a real monster.
  • It makes us love Mike, for whom this overly-dramatic performance serves as a comically vain moment of humanity.
  • It introduces and differentiates the personalities of the rest of our ensemble.
  • It provides the thematic question.
The good vs. good thematic dilemma that fuels “Stranger Things” is innocence vs. experience, represented here by the debate between protection (protecting both your safety and your innocence) vs. fireball (endangering yourself and your soul by killing). Will is forced to choose. It’s always great to begin a story with this sort of thematic question asked out loud, which not only establishes the theme, but resonates throughout the rest of the story.

This quickly leads to another thematic dilemma: After Mike is called upstairs, Will finds the die and discovers that it was a seven. Lucas asks, “Did Mike see it?” Will shakes his head, so Lucas says, “Then it doesn’t count.” When they get outside, however, Will confesses to Mike:
  • Will: It was a seven.
  • Mike: Huh?
  • Will: The roll, it was a seven. The demogorgon, it got me. See you tomorrow.
Interestingly, this last exchange doesn’t happen in the script, reversing the meaning of hiding the roll. In the script, Will’s deception tarnishes him and seems to bring on his death, in a classic horror-movie sort of way (He chooses evil, therefore evil is done to him). In the finished version, it seems after Will’s disappearance that he was maybe too good to live in this world. The horror genre always invites us to blame the victim, one way or another.

Straying from the Party Line: The Dangling Dramatic Question in Stranger Things

Is “Stranger Things” a series or a miniseries? In many ways, this feels more like the first hour of a miniseries than the first hour of a series.
  • The premise is not established by midway through the pilot.
  • The premise does not lend itself easily to mini-goals that can be solved within each episode.
  • The dramatic question for this episode is not answered at the end of the pilot (What happened to Will?)
Indeed, I feel strongly that it should be a miniseries, and shouldn’t have a second season, but that ship has already sailed, so we’ll see how well they pull it off.

Of course, many of these things could also be said about the show this one most closely resembles: “Twin Peaks”. I’ve always felt that show should have been a miniseries as well, and utterly failed to sustain itself as soon as Laura Palmer’s killer was found. I’d be interested to know if any of you disagree with that. I’ve never heard anyone make a strong case otherwise.

I would say that this is the price to be paid for not answering the dramatic question at the end of the pilot: you establish that dramatic question as the driver for the whole show, and the show has to end when it’s answered.

It seems to me that this was intended to be a miniseries until its huge success. The show just tied up too many loose ends at the end of the season. Mike and Eleven’s story felt like it had come to a natural and permanent conclusion. The boys were not ready to begin life as adventurers or demon fighters: One huge thing had happened to them and that was always going to be the big thing that happened to them. The teens’ story was even more finished and I have very little interest in seeing them again. Only Hopper seems like he has another season in him, and that’s a stretch.

What about you? Are you eager to see a second season? Can it possibly be as good as the first? Can it still involve the kids, the teens and the same adults, or should it jettison some of the old cast in favor of new faces?