5 Simple Steps To Creating A TV Pilot Anyone Would Watch

True Detective
True Detective

There’s no better get-rich-quick scheme like creating a TV show. Feature films are old news — no one cares about them anymore, and it takes years to get approval on a script. By the time the studio is done chopping it up, it’s barely yours. With new avenues of production like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the world is starved for content like never before, so now’s your chance to get in while the game is hot. I’ve taken a few classes on the subject, so here’s five simple steps to get your pilot produced:

1. Pick One of the Following: Lawyer (or Political), Doctor, or Crime

This is your starting point. Pick one of these three and don’t even think about creating any fluffy, avant garde bullshit that taps into deeper human emotions. Save that for your Sundance Film fest so you can get a pat on the back from theatre students.

Why these three? Easy: because they all have inherent life-or-death consequences and those are the most interesting kind.

Lawyer: “You’re getting the death penalty.”
Doctor: “You have a rare disease or injury that’s going to take this entire episode to diagnose.”
Crime: “Each week there’s a new hooligan in town and we have to stop him.”

Think about the best shows on TV. Breaking Bad had all three of these elements: Walt’s cancer, Saul Goodman the lawyer, and Hank the DEA agent.

2. Give Your Main Character Something Special

No one will care about your average-joe, salt-of-the-earth detective that lives his life by the book and has a loving family. I got bored just writing that sentence, so you have three options:

Mental Illness/Addiction: Remember Jack from Lost? The guy was a doctor with daddy issues and alcoholism, yet he still struggled to make the morally correct decision and we loved him for it. Remember Carrie from Homeland? She’s a manic-depressive CIA agent which makes us ask: is she right? Is she off her meds? What if the CIA finds out? These things give you revolving conflict; if an episode is falling flat, boom — Carrie’s off her meds and Jack’s drinking and yelling at his dad.

Supernatural or Borderline-Supernatural: Your cop isn’t an ordinary cop, he has telekinetic powers and can stop bullets but can’t let anyone discover this or else he’ll be ostracized by society. Sherlock Holmes has pseudo-psychic deductive reasoning, but he can’t live a normal life without coming across like a blatant sociopath. Whatever you do, please, for the love of god don’t try and make another ‘shifter romance’ that involves werewolves, vampires, or witches. Just don’t.

Tormented Past: Your character just washed up on the shores of Fort Lauderdale with no recollection of his time in an experimental prison dedicated to mutating the human genome, but we’ll learn this in flashbacks throughout the series to illuminate what makes him so weird and mysterious.

3. Secondary Characters and Relationships

Whatever your character represents, his best friend or colleague is the exact opposite. If one lawyer is a hyper-insensitive, Ayn Rand fanboy, his colleague is a Deepak Chopra humanist. Remember True Detective? Rust and Marty disagreed on every possible aspect of life, they never stopped arguing and that conflict reveals character and creates tension.

You also need some romance — even if it’s dark and apathetic like Frank Underwood and Zoe Barnes — and you can’t give your character what they want (or you can, but then they immediately lose it and struggle to earn it back). We don’t want to see characters fall in love in the first episode and be happily-ever-after for the rest of the series. Even The Office refused to do that with Jim and Pam. After a season or two, you get the ‘shippies:’ people who only watch the show to see when he gets the girl or vice versa.

4. Make Sure Your Plot Can Last

Don’t start your concept with an idea like: two astronauts are building a colony on the moon and plotting how they’ll get home. When they get home, it’s over. This is what happened with Prison Break: they got out of prison. Lost was incredible for years, then they ran out of things to write and ended it by saying, ‘Yeah, everyone’s been dead this whole time.’ Even worse was Homeland: is he a terrorist or not? This show won two Emmys in a row and now it’s tanking in a really embarrassing way because that question was answered. What happens now that Frank Underwood is president? I guarantee you House of Cards will be over after two more seasons, but that’s fine because it’s been a great show.

This is where 30-minute sitcoms shine. We could have The Big Bang Theory, Veep, and New Girl forever because there isn’t an overarching ‘goal’ that the main characters are trying to accomplish.

5. Create Your ‘One Sheet’ Pitch Document

Now just combine all these things into a single-page pitch document. I’ll do it right now and I swear on my life I’m making this all up real-time to show you how simple this is:

Title: Requiem

Logline: When an ex-CIA agent washes up on the shores of Fort Lauderdale five years after his presumed death, his fading amnesia and newfound telepathy help him solve the greatest threats to national security.

Intended Demographic: 18-35
Broadcast: Premium (HBO)
Structure: 1 hour, Primetime drama, 13 episodes

Synopsis: Former Green Beret and CIA agent, Dean Shriver (Charlie Hunnam), mysteriously reappears after undergoing five years of torture and experimental gene manipulation in a top-secret asylum at Guantanamo Bay. His skills are intact, but he’s completely forgotten his time on the island and all of his former life, including his now-remarried ex-wife, Cassandra Givens (Jennifer Garner). The CIA hesitates to trust his intentions and fears he’s been brainwashed to do harm, but his mind-reading skills prove to be an immense asset. He is, however, stricken with agoraphobia and social anxiety; the closer and more intimate he gets with another person, the less he’s able to read their mind. His abilities and benevolence are at constant odds with corruption in the CIA and political parties, as he must disprove the facades of hypocrisy that only he can see. Is he the only one of his kind? Will he allow himself to be vulnerable for love?

There it is. I’m not saying it’s fantastic, but I’d sure as shit watch that. Charlie Hunnam and Jennifer Garner on HBO? Sign me up. Now I beg of you, as someone who binges on Netflix like no other, take a stand against terrible television and recycled shifter romances and make something cool. I’m running out of things to watch that don’t make me cringe. Please? TC mark

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