Friday, October 7, 2011

"I Cheated On The 'Major Dad' Pilot"

A CBS executive, whose name, I believe, was Barbara, saved the Major Dad project, by proposing an adjustment to the series’ concept that substantially upgraded its comedic possibilities. I wrote about that last time, and I expressed my appreciation to Barbara. That’s the kind of guy I am.

Armed with a “script deal”, we (me, and my co-writer Rick) meet with Barbara, where we present our idea for Major Dad’s pilot story. Barbara shoots it down, and I immediately stop appreciating her. That’s also the kind of guy I am.

Here’s where we differed. A network wants to know from viewing the pilot, whether or not they have a series, rather than just a standout pilot with decreasingly impressive follow-up episodes. As a result – again, this is in my day, but it’s unlikely things have changed that much – what the network wants to see in a pilot is what they call “Episode Six.”

What does “Episode Six” mean? It means that they want the pilot to represent a typical, series episode, one that could just as comfortably be broadcast as the sixth episode of the series rather than the first. An “Episode Six”-like pilot gives the network the security and reassurance they’re looking for.

“If ‘Episode Six’ is good, the series is more likely to be good.”

Hardly an unreasonable strategy.

For the network.

But for the guy who’s trying to sell a show, in this case, a sitcom set in military locale in the late 1980’s when there are no wars anywhere and the military is on nobody’s radar screen…

This is a very tough sell.

To sell that show, that show’s writer is going to need all the help he can get. Help that is unlikely to derive from offering up a standard, “Episode Six” pilot.

Therein lies our conflict with Barbara. The network wants an “Episode Six.” We pitched them, as Monty Python would say, something completely different.

What did we pitch them? Well, let’s go back for a second. The original premise for Major Dad was “a widower Marine raising three young children alone.” The adjusted, greatly improved, premise is now “a Marine who’s married to a woman with three daughters.”

An “Episode Six” pilot story would have them already married, and a situation arises, wherein the Major’s “Marine” values and the woman and her three daughters’ values come into direct (comedic) conflict.

Rick and I had pitched an atypical pilot episode. (When Barbara expressed her unhappiness with it, Rick immediately chirped, “We’ll come up with something else.” The less said about Rick the better.)

Here’s how I explained why I wanted to do our idea.

“We’re trying to sell you this series. And in order to give us the best possible chance of doing so, we need to deliver the best pilot we can possibly make. The best pilot we can possibly make in this situation would not be an “Episode Six”, but would instead tell the story of how these people originally met, and how it was that they ended up married.”

It’s called a “premise” pilot. A “premise pilot” sets up the series, telling the story of how “it all got started.” As an example, the Best of the West pilot begins with Sam Best and his family arriving at their new western home in Copper Creek, and by the end, “tenderfoot” Sam has subdued a notorious gunfighter in a shootout, and had been appointed Copper Creek’s town marshal.

The Best of the West pilot was hardly an “Episode Six.” But it sold the series. I wanted to follow a similar template with Major Dad.

There is nothing funnier than showing the “firsts” in a series – things happening to the characters for the very first time. (“Remember when” flashbacks to those “firsts” are not nearly as effective.) The first time Polly the pacifist reporter locks horns with the “warrior god” Marine Major. The first time the Major meets the daughters, arriving unexpectedly at their home, decked out in his “utilities” – head-to-toe camouflage fatigues.

There’s a moment in the pilot where, with Polly and her two older girls in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner, the six year-old youngest daughter stares incredulously at the Major, while the Major stands stiffly in the living room, feeling more and more uncomfortable under her laser-like gaze. That silent “encounter” got the longest laugh of anything I have ever written.

That big laugh was only possible, because we were watching, not an “Episode Six” moment – where the characters would have had five episodes to get used to each other – but because this was the first time these characters had ever met.

Our pilot story got even bolder. In the course of twenty-four minutes, what we were pitching was to take the reporter-Marine relationship from a first encounter to a “three-days-later” proposal of marriage by a Marine who knew what he wanted and went for it, or, as the Major explained it,

“See the hill; take the hill.”

CBS balked at our proposal. I reiterated my need for my “best possible shot.”

CBS gave in.

Though it would cost them a little production money, for the network, this was still fundamentally, as Bill Cosby once called it, a “bases loaded – top of the first” situation. If the Major Dad pilot, with all the advantages I was fighting for, stunk up the place, CBS would simply not to pick up the show.

As it turned out, on “show night”, the Major Dad pilot was the best-received presentation I have ever been associated with. The “firsts” all got solid laughs. And the climactic moment – when the Major, attired in his “Dress Blues”, produced a linen handkerchief from his sleeve, spread in onto the kitchen floor, got down on one knee and proposed,

It was pure magic.

Once the show was picked up, we wrote a four-story “arc”, ending with the wedding in “Episode Four.” I cannot now recall what “Episode Six” was. But it’s unlikely it stood out like the pilot.

The thing is,

without that pilot, there would almost certainly

never have been

an “Episode Six.”


Keith said...

Premise pilots are always better. I guess nowadays the networks simply pick up shows for "9 more episodes" so they can find out if they have a series or not.

Mac said...

Also, by the time you get to episode 6, the viewer has got there with you. I remember some classic Frasier scenes where the characters exchanged looks and didn't say a word, but it was hilarious and you knew exactly what it meant. I don't see how you can jump into episode 6 from the off. Of course you can give some idea of what you'll do when you get here, but yes, as a viewer, it's a joy to see everyone get to know each other at the same time as you, the viewer, gets to know them.

Anonymous said...

Just finished Major Dad on a binge-watching spree thanks to Hulu. It came up as a recommended show for me. Have to say I had never heard of the show before which is surprising as I grew up in a military family. Anyway, loved it from the first episode. Glad you guys didn't start with "Episode Six".

I found your blog by trying to find out why the show ended so abruptly. One minute General Marcus and the crew is headed to DC, then the birthday, and boom! no more show. Sad, really. One more episode could have finished the show up nicely, though I wish there were more seasons.

I don't believe you ever did say why the show ended as such. You promised you would divulge in your October 6th, 2011 post, but never did that I could see.

Thanks fora great show!