Monday, October 30, 2017

Breaking down the pilot of VERONICA MARS

Last week I did a live-tweet of the pilot of VERONICA MARS, breaking it down in terms of what's to be learned from it in terms of writing a strong pilot and establishing a show. Soon after I was done, I had two repeated requests from followers: 1) Could I archive the live-tweet on my blog? and 2) Would I do it again?

As to the first question: see below. As to the second, I'm planning on breaking down the ALIAS pilot starting at 7:15pm Pacific time tonight. You should be able to find it streaming on Hulu. You could also purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.

Below is the transcript of my live-tweet. I made a few additions and corrections, but it's otherwise as I tweeted it. If you want to see the original thread, go here.

Part of the reason I'm doing this is I used to have good notes on this pilot for my own ref and I need to reconstruct them. I'm working on a pilot that's similar in some ways so it's helpful for me to take a peek under the hood of shows that are in the same vein.

Opening scene - noirish, seedy motel. Veronica VO. Sets the mood and the tone. Cheery voice with a cynical outlook. Calculus textbook on the seat before we see Veronica is a nice visual way to tip us off that the PI is a teen. Teaser ends with Weevil and the PCH motorcycle gang pulling up. Sets up major part of the show.

2nd scene - high school "If you go here, your parents are millionaires or they work for millionaires." Important line. Veronica gets a Save the cat moment in getting Wallace down from the flagpole.

Next scene, she nails a question in class despite being half asleep. AND she gets to interpret Poe's work as "Life's a bitch, then you die." What does all this have in common? Character.

Next scene: Veronica has a "random" locker search. She's one step ahead of the principal. More establishing bits about her relationship with faculty, and the fact she's tipped off about locker searches.

Now that we have a sense of WHO she is, we get an exposition dump. Her ex was Duncan Kane, who dumped her out of the blue. Key detail for later. The VO is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it's entertaining, as when she calls Logan a "psychotic jackass." It's memorable.

Another important bit: Veronica not intimidated by Weevil, even with him backed up by his biker gang. We see all this in less than 7 minutes.

I'm not gonna call out every scene, but it's worth noting we're locked in to V's POV. We don't cut away from her at any point.

Ten minutes in and we get to Veronica's father's PI office. Defense attorney Cliff stops by to drop off a cup of exposition. He mentions that the local strip club has a creative way of keeping their liquor license. Remember that for later.

And then we meet V's dad Keith, just after a meeting with Veronica's ex Duncan's mother, Celeste Kane.  

Act Out on "Dad tried to send her husband to jail for life."

Act two open - Veronica and Keith. We see their dynamic. Important to show how all your main characters relate, at least to the protag.

Case of the week (or so it seems): Veronica follows Jake Kane, Duncan's father. Celeste suspects him of cheating. Backstory about how his company employs the town and how he made half the town rich practically overnight. After that, more flashbacks, and we finally reach the real mythology...

Lily Kane - Veronica's best friend and Jake's daughter - murdered. VO tells us this was a major media case. Keith was Sheriff. Investigated Jake, So the case cost Veronica her friend, and her father his career and reputation. AND it was never solved, despite a lot of public interest and publicity.

Annnd we find out that Logan was Lily's girlfriend. Keith loses his job in the scandal, but his wife leaves. Lotta emotional stakes here.

Basically, Act Two is where Backstory kicks in the door and announces its presence. It's a lot, but it's cleaner for all the intros in Act 1.

Or to put it another way, DON'T DROWN YOUR AUDIENCE IN MYTHOLOGY TOO FAST. If the pilot opened on the Lily Kane stuff we'd be lost
 
"Want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I?" Well, that's a dark line. V got roofied at a party, woke up without underwear.  Lotta flashbacks, complex timeline. You know what helps? Flashback-Veronica has much longer hair. Look for the visual things like that.

Mystery tally at the end of Act Two: 

1) Who Killed Lily? 
2) Who raped Veronica? 
3) Why did Duncan dump Veronica 

Top of Act 3: Logan taunts Veronica about her mother. We learn she left 8 months ago. Also see Logan and Duncan are buds.

Now we move to Veronica's other case of the week, helping Wallace get the PCH bikers off his ass. It's a vehicle to show the V/W dynamic. Wallace pissed off the bikers by calling the cops on them for shoplifting at the store where he worked. Police took the security tape as evidence.

Another Keith/Veronica scene, shows the kinds of cases that pay the bills (bail jumpers). She brings him up to speed on Jake Kane case. As soon as Keith sees the license plate belonging to someone who was meeting with Jake Kane at a hotel, he says to stay away from the case. Another mini mystery to generate tension.

Payoff to Veronica locker search bit: she plants a bong in Logan's locker so he gets caught. It also sets up a complicated bit I'll recap quickly. Veronica basically uses the bong to set off a smoke alarm in the police evidence locker, gives her the chance to recover the security tape that the PCH gang is mad at Wallace over.

The big note: the case of the week puts all the regular relationship dynamics on display.

ACT THREE OUT - the car VM photographed meeting Jake Kane belongs to Veronica's mom. Leeanne Mars is meeting Jake? But why?

Top of Act Four - Veronica asks Keith why he wants to drop the case. He lies. Provokes bigger question for Veronica and audience - why?

Next: Flashbacks show Veronica tried to report her rape to Sheriff Lamb. He mocked her and blew her off.

There's a bit where Veronica uses the exposition Cliff dropped earlier to set up a humiliation of Lamb in court. It also involves her recovering a videotape that gets the PCH gang off the hook, and in turn gets Wallace out of the doghouse. Basically EVERY. LINE. OF DIALOGUE came together for that moment. Not one wasted scene

Next, Logan shows up for payback, smashes V's headlight. PCH gang shows u for a "She's with us" kind of moment. Humbles Logan. Weevil beats up Logan until Veronica calls him off. So now we see V & Weevil are on the same side. Kinda. Wallace gets an apology from Weevil (somewhat forced) tying that up. 

And from there we go to Veronica back at the PI office. She breaks into her dad's safe and we learn he's never stopped working the Lily Kane case AND the hotel pic V took is in the case file. So Keith never stopped working the case, but V's VO tells us her big question is "why did Dad lie to me?"

Critical point: the big mythos mystery has implications for her current relationships. It's not JUST about who killed Lily, it's about how those revelations still can upend her life after they come out. We're not tuning in just to solve the mystery, we're going to be tracking what the investigation does to the father/daughter relationship over the season. 

It's smart because it makes the show about more than just a puzzle. You need emotional stakes to hang things on so that when that mystery goes away, there's still meat on the bone.

Last scene: Veronica on stakeout again. VO declares she will solve this case and bring this family back together. it's the "I Want."

Not one wasted scene in that pilot. Everything is pushing plot, character or both. multiple subplots AND two ongoing uber-mysteries.

Major relationships established and shown: Veronica/Keith, Veronica/Wallace, Veronica/Weevil, Veronica/Logan.

relationships mostly suggested: V/Lily, V/Logan, V/Mother.

Oh! I forgot that we also set up V/Lamb and V/Cliff. both pretty important. These 45 minutes are JAMMED with character intros. And also notable, only a few of those are meeting for the first time. we're dropped into relationships that feel like they existed for years. One lesson here: KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. 

Seriously. It helps this is all from V's POV, but the others are pretty well drawn.

Somehow the Veronica Mars pilot juggles being plot-heavy and character-heavy. Sometimes a plot procedural will go with a simpler story just to let the characters breathe while going through it. VM is like "nah," and interweaves three subplots, possibly four.

You could pull the Lily Kane murder stuff out and you'd STILL have enough story for one episode. That's how much is packed into this.

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