I’ve now seen two pilots written by Kyle Killen. The first, Lone Star, aired in 2010 and was cancelled after its second episode. The second Awake, premiers on NBC March 1st.
Having seen the pilot of Awake, I’m left with a visceral reaction. It’s the same one I had after reading the opening pages of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or Tripping Daisies, and it’s the same excitement that I felt in the last few minutes of Lone Star. Quite simply: “How the hell do you read this script and not make this show?”
The formula is actually really simple: you start with a provocative concept that’s naturally designed to create conflict. You introduce it in full by the end of the first act. Make sure we care about the main character. At the end of the episode, the protagonist makes a conscious (and plot-wise, inevitable) decision to lead a double life. Fill in the gaps in between.
So simple, and yet so darn powerful.
I remember when I saw Killen speak at Austin Film Festival in 2010, he mentioned that when you’re testing a TV pilot you sit a bunch of people in chairs with dials, and they turn their dial up when they like something and down when they don’t. Meanwhile, the producers sit in another room with a blue line and a pink line that goes up and down according to the men’s and women’s reactions, respectively, to what they’re seeing. In Lone Star, the blue line went way up when the protagonist made the conscious decision to become a serial bigamist, which Killen interpreted as men thinking, “Yay, bigamy!” Speaking personally, my blue line would have gone way up at that point, but not because I’m a fan of bigamy: it’s because I was left excited about where this show would take us and how in the hell this guy was going to pull this off.
It was the same thing watching Awake. Although the protagonist’s conscious decision at the end was predictable (at least to me, having seen Killen’s work before), I was left with that same feeling of excitement. That same feeling of: How in the hell do you read this script and not make this show?
This is what we all, as writers, need to strive for: a concept, and a script, that is so outstanding the production execs couldn’t possibly resist.