The Kyle Killen Formula

February 27, 2012

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.



February 6, 2012

Tonight at 10/9c  on NBC Smash premieres. And if you can’t wait, you can watch it right now on Hulu. Which you might want to do, because OMG beaver nuggets, this is a good one. Katherine McPhee exudes every iota of hometown innocence with jaw-gaping sexuality that you could want from an actress playing an actress playing Marilyn Monroe. The script oozes with conflict, thanks to the big egos and emotional decisions that go into this kind of subject matter, and it’s dripping with subtext, thanks in no small part to the manipulative (but very believable) villain. And although musicals always run the risk of coming off as cheesy (see Why I’m Giving Up on Glee), this one uses the music exactly as its designed: to further the story and to heighten the emotional stakes when dialogue just isn’t enough. The cheese is meant to be there, and the rest hits right at the emotional core.

I always get excited when I see shows that revolve around the entertainment industry. They always seem to have an extra spark, because the people making it really know what the hell they’re talking about, and they really care about it. And as someone who works in the industry, I get it. Of course, the same thing that appeals to me about these showbiz TV-shows – that I get what they’re talking about – may be the reason why they don’t always do so well. Studio 60 was awesome, but was doomed to a single season, mostly because the audience just didn’t quite appreciate it to the same level.

So let’s give it some love, and give Smash the opening night it deserves.

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