Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my friend Andre, who used to make his living as a reader for television and film production companies, reading through teleplays and screenplays, looking for something that really grabbed him and that he thought might be worth passing along to the higher-ups for further exploration.
As is wont to happen when the two of us hang out together, the conversation turned to pop culture. Specifically, the new Joss Whedon project Dollhouse, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnae Eliza Dushku.
Now, if you follow pop culture in any way, it's no secret that Dollhouse has been a project fraught with problems. Several versions of the pilot were shot, screened and subsequently scrapped after test audiences came away confused or - worse - bored. Finally, nearly a year after the first viral marketing campaign for the series had been launched, and after persistent (but false) rumors that the show would be canceled before it even premiered, the much-anticipated pilot episode of Dollhouse aired. And viewers said "Meh." And viewers said "It's boring." And viewers said "This is gonna tank." Whedon assured viewers and critics that the show would really get going about seven episodes in, and that they just needed to stick with it.
Sure enough, this past Friday, the seventh episode aired and it was a doozy, everything a Joss Whedon fan could hope for. The show's premise finally seemed to come together.
And this was precisely Andre's problem with the show: that it took seven hours for the pacing of the show to start working. And that's just too damned long when you've only got thirteen episodes in the can, no promise of a second season and a producer who's already had one show yanked (Firefly) for exactly the same reason. Because the fact is most viewers aren't going to stick around long enough to make it to that seventh hour. Who has that kind of time to invest? So most of the potential audience for Dollhouse probably tuned out about four episodes ago.
Ideally, a new television series need to hit the ground running in the pilot episode, or the ratings will drop each week to the point that the network has no choice but to yank it mid-season. A couple of great pilot episodes that worked? The pilot for ER, which ended with Julianna Margolies' character attempting suicide. The pilot for The Shield, which ended with one undercover cop shooting another point blank in the face.
The average teleplay is about 60 pages long for a one-hour episode. So the writer has 60 pages, more or less, to grab the viewer and make them want to continue the journey for the rest of the television season.
And guess what?
As a novelist, you get about the same number of pages to grab agents and editors before we put your manuscript down and move onto the next one. Your writing may be gorgeous but if you can't grab us as readers, we simply don't have the time to be spending 120, 150, 200, 250 pages with your story in the hopes that it'll get better somewhere down the line.
Who says TV has to turn your brain to mush? =)