By Julia Morizawa.
The last two decades have arguably been considered “The Golden Age of Television.” Initially spurred by high-quality cable shows that were more akin to Hollywood blockbusters than the light-hearted sitcoms we were so accustomed to the previous fifty years and boosted by streaming services taking the reins with original content in the 2010s, the format, and expectations of television have become vastly flexible.
This flexibility has led to less stringent rules in format. Although one-hour shows are still largely associated with drama while half-hours tend to fall into comedy, this is no longer a set rule or expectation, especially with the popularity of the dramedy genre (think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in which season 4’s episodes range from 43 to 76 minutes).
Ultimately, the real difference between one-hour and half-hour shows is, quite literally, the length of each episode. For screenwriters, this means paying attention to page count and formatting. Whereas a half-hour generally consists of three acts (plus sometimes a teaser/cold open at the beginning and a tag at the end), a one-hour is usually four or five acts (plus sometimes a teaser/cold open and a tag). Specifying act breaks is essential for network television as these delineate the placement of commercial breaks, but not so important for cable and streaming shows. As such a one-hour pilot intended for a network should land around 45 pages whereas a one-hour for cable or streaming generally falls between 55-65 pages.
But again, that’s just formatting. Right? The elements that make a strong TV pilot, whether one-hour or half-hour, remain the same – a strong premise, a well-structured plot full of conflict, compelling multi-dimensional characters, and a clear trajectory for the rest of the season (and series) that makes us want to return for episode two.
As part of our “Anatomy of a Winning Script” series, in this article, we are going to break down one of Shore Scripts’ winning one-hour TV pilots, specifically from the perspective of a contest reader. READ ON!
Pipeline, written by Brian Golden, was the 1st Place Winner of our 2019 TV Pilot Contest in the one-hour category. The story is set in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley and follows three Mexican-American siblings who are forced to confront their complicated history when a controversial public works project pits them on opposite sides of the law.
The script went on to win the 2019 WeScreenplay TV Contest and place in about a dozen other notable competitions and was featured on The Black List as one of the database’s top reviewed TV scripts of the year. At the onset of the pandemic, Pipeline was optioned for development by a producer.
In addition to being a screenwriter, Brian also moonlights as a journalist. He recently penned a story for Washington Monthly about the subculture of elite political gamblers and has ghostwritten many op-eds about California and national political issues in the LA Times, Huff Post, Sac Bee, and more. In his creative work, his passion is writing with a strong sense of place, telling stories about families and the trickle-down impact of politics on ordinary people.
Now, let’s take a closer look at why Pipeline became a Shore Scripts contest winner.
To make a great series there has to be a strong theme. What is the writer trying to say about his perspective of the world in this story? What is the meaning of the script? And is that theme coming across to the reader? As a reader, it may not always be clear what the writer is trying to say, but if written well, we still get to experience our own interpretations of the story’s theme. And a strong story will spin our heads with thought-provoking perspectives about the world, life, and humanity. Pipeline succeeds in this aspect on numerous levels.
With its roots in the universally engaging concept of family ties, Pipeline takes an interesting direction as it forces us to remember that nothing is ever black or white. The moral gray areas the story explores will cause any reader to have second thoughts about their own ethics and values. And that’s the core element of a powerful story – a story that feels like it could change the world – or, at least, the audience’s perspective.
In Pipeline, this morally grey area is seen through the three primary characters – siblings Pina, Urbano, and Alma. Pina is a modern-day Robin Hood – stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Except, she’s not giving to the poor – the Mexican-American community that she grew up with – she’s selling to them for a profit. How does she justify her behavior? “Capitalism, hermano.” As a cop, Urbano struggles to do the “right thing” – either arrest Pina for stealing or protect her as a big brother should – and the line between the law and what’s right becomes blurred. Meanwhile, at her corporate job, Alma chooses to play the performative role of a “mascot” as a Latina from a low-income background in exchange for a promotion, as part of the company’s attempt to secure land for a controversial project that would store rainwater on farmland then sell it at a high price. As each character experiences their own internal conflict regarding the “right” thing to do, we are simultaneously torn over what we would do if we were in their shoes.
From this big picture theme, additional themes and thought-provoking perspectives are born, many of which are summed up in dialogue. When Urbano argues that their father “worked the field till his heart gave up, so you could have a life,” Pina responds with, “Papi made six bucks an hour to make a rich man richer. Papi was a fool” and we can’t help but agree with both of them to some extent. When Alma admits to her new colleague (and lover), “I don’t really trust anyone,” Gilly responds with “World is hard enough, Alma. Without trust – it’s damn near impossible.” A valid argument that seems easy to get behind, yet by the end of the episode, we see that Alma may have been wrong to trust her new friend, and we are left contemplating the pros and cons of trust in the real world. Despite Alma’s attempts to climb the corporate ladder, she is harshly reminded that she’s merely being used and, “you’re always a poor kid from Querencia,” which echoes the sentiment that society prohibits us from growing beyond the life we were born into. Urbano sums up an optimistic perspective on life that he’s beginning to doubt with, “My father believed that if you do the right thing, things end up OK,” which is followed by a beautiful monologue about justice from a supporting character that sets up an important visual element in the end.
CONFLICT, CONFLICT, CONFLICT
For some writers, conflict is one of those things that seems so simple in theory, but is one of the most challenging elements of plot development to execute. First of all, what is the definition of conflict? Merriam-Webster defines it as, “The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.” As such, conflict can be external, such as when the protagonist is prohibited from achieving her goal due to the actions of an antagonist. Or it can be internal, such as when the protagonist struggles to choose the morally right thing to do. Conflict can occur between a character and themself, another character, society, nature, the supernatural, technology, and some might argue, fate.
Pipeline. is full of non-stop conflict that progressively increases. As a reader, this is one of the main reasons the script is impossible to put down. This conflict drives the plot and is executed brilliantly in that every scene builds off the previous scenes. There isn’t time to hit on every example within this article, but let’s start with the basic information: The pilot follows three Mexican-American siblings who all grew up in an impoverished neighborhood called Querencia in central California. Pina is the black sheep – the rebel, the failure – broke and venturing down the criminal path. We meet her breaking into an upper-class gated community to steal clean water from houses, which she then resells at a steep price to her own impoverished community. Urbano is a cop and family man always concerned with doing what’s right, and still living in Querencia with his exhausted wife, expecting a fourth child that they cannot afford. And Alma is a career woman making her way up the ladder with the farming corporation that provides the locals with underpaid but much-needed jobs while “stealing” the land and its water.
With this in mind, here are some examples of conflict we encounter throughout the pilot’s 61 pages. Urbano is the cop sent to investigate the stolen water and he quickly realizes that the thief is his own sister. Initially, he chooses to not turn her in, lying to his boss. Soon the boss reveals potential budget cuts that would entail laying Urbano off due to a lack of seniority, but that capturing the thief could secure Urbano’s job. This news comes right after Urbano and his wife find out their almost-due baby is breech and will require a C-section – an operation they cannot afford.
Meanwhile, Pina continues stealing and reselling water but feels guilty when she is seen attempting to steal water bottles from the Red Cross that are being donated to her community. At the same time, she can’t pay her rent and eventually chooses to steal from her landlord before skipping out. She is kidnapped by a mysterious man who “hires” her to access a laptop owned by County Land Commissioner, David Flores. But she soon learns that her target, Flores, is collaborating with her sister, Alma. Pina must choose between screwing over her sister and following through with her kidnapper’s demands.
Alma is given a promotion in exchange for serving as a “mascot” – a Latina local from a poor background – to appeal to the Latino commissioner, Flores, to convince him to sign over a huge land sale. She accepts the offer despite the hit to her ego and self-worth, but butts heads with her new “Ivy League” colleagues. When she meets with Flores privately with the deal on the horizon, they are interrupted by, of course, Pina, who has come for the laptop.
This is a mere short list of the constant stream of obstacles the three primary characters are hit with throughout the episode. The conflict is non-stop, both internal and external for all three characters, and ultimately it all ties together as we soon realize each character’s goal is in direct conflict with one or both of their siblings’ goals. What results from this is a compelling narrative that keeps us engaged from start to finish.