Tuesday, May 3, 2011

17th Precinct (TV Pilot)

Genre: TV pilot – police procedural/fantasy
Premise: In a modern day San Francisco-like city where the laws of physics are superseded by hard magic, the deputy mayor’s right hand man is murdered, leaving some to suspect he is responsible.
About: Writer and show-runner Ronald D. Moore went to Cornell but failed out when he was a senior, and was only passively interested in writing while there. Afterwards, his interest in writing for TV grew, and he ended up writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After the relative failure of his third Star Trek series, Voyager, Moore vowed to treat his next sci-fi project more seriously. It was that serious dark tone that ended up making his Battlestar Galactica so popular. 17th Precinct Is Moore’s newest show, which is fighting for a spot on NBC’s lineup this fall.
Writer: Ronald D. Moore
Details: 65 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

TV really is turning into the final frontier of experimentation.  And if writers out there are taking more chances like this, I want to be there when they do. Because 17th Precinct is OUT THERE. I reviewed a script a couple of weeks ago called “Atlas” about a magical city that existed parallel to ours. Overall it felt like a soft treatment of the premise – wrapped in the safety of 8 dollar popcorn and stale boxes of milk duds. This is a way more interesting exploration of similar subject matter. In this world, Moore asks, what if our cities were fueled by magic? Not the Harry Potter kind. But “real life” practical magic. Sound interesting? It is.

17th Precinct begins with a dark figure murdering a man in an alley. The man cries out. But we hear nothing. I was a little disappointed in the writing of this scene only because it wasn’t made clear whether the lack of sound was a stylistic choice or we really couldn’t hear him. It was only later, once I understood the world, that I realized his screams had been muted out by some magical means. A small plant sprouting out of a crack nearby turned out to be the culprit, emitting a sound bubble around the immediate area. Clearly, it had been planted there earlier for that exact purpose.

Welcome to Excelsior.

The murder in question was that of Gilmore Pettigrew, which is a big deal, because Gilmore Pettigrew advises the Deputy Mayor on visions of the city’s future. No, I’m not talking about speculations. He can actually see the future. And that makes his murder all the more troubling. How can a man who sees the future not predict his own death?

We realize this is a different set of rules right away when inspectors Jeff and Caolan come in and begin investigating the crime scene. In this world, you can shift the blood around with the flick of a finger to see how it shot out of the body. You can also bring in necromancers to briefly bring the murdered victim back to life (in smoke-filled form) and get clues about what they saw before they were attacked.

What makes this murder so suspicious is that the Deputy Mayor lied about receiving Pettigrew’s yearly prophesy the night before. Coupled with a wild well-documented fight on the phone, the mayor definitely seems to be hiding something. The question is, is he lying to hide his hand in the murder? Or is he lying because that prophesy said something so horrible that it could never be uttered again in public?

What’s interesting about 17th Precinct is that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. In features, I always say, “Don’t fall in love with the details of your sci-fi world. Move the story along instead.” However, I don’t know if that applies to TV. Obviously, you have over a hundred episodes to delve into your characters’ storylines, so I guess it’s more acceptable to explore the details of your world. Here, for example, a lot of time is spent describing skyscrapers that are wrapped in some sort of living plant life. Or how the physical presence of someone might not be who they are on the inside (an old man could be a young woman). In the 17th Precinct, people keep cabinets full of spells the same way we keep cabinets full of food. I’ve never seen magic taken this seriously before. And that made getting into the details fun.

But make no mistake, that choice had residual effects. Whenever you spend too much time on one thing, you’re taking time away from something else, especially if you only have 48 minutes to tell your story. And the big weakness of 17th Precinct is that there wasn’t a single central character who popped off the page – who you remembered. The “rugged” Detective Chief Inspector, Wilder Blanks, looks the part. But at least in this draft, there’s nothing going on with him underneath the surface. No flaw. No fear. No inner conflict. And that, disappointingly, was the case with pretty much everyone. I’m writing this a week after I read the script, and I don’t remember any notable flaws that any of the characters were battling. Granted this is a pilot, but at least the hint of a flaw would be nice. I remember in that pilot for Lost, every single character looked like they had something to hide. You were drawn into that mystery, desperately hoping to learn more about them. I didn’t feel that here.

However, if I had to pick the most memorable character of the bunch, it would be Detective Mira Barkley. Why? Because she’s overweight and in her 60s. In all these procedural shows, I can’t remember a single one that featured a 60-something overweight woman in a detective role. It was refreshing and different and intriguing. I wanted to learn more about her. Having said that, even her character was lazy. One second the recently retired Mira is refusing to come back and be a detective again unless she gets the star treatment. The next she barely bats an eye after being paired with a rookie cop at the bottom of the barrel.

The most memorable characters from the pilot episode of 17th Precinct were, in fact, the single-episode characters, the characters being focused on in the investigation, which included the Deputy Mayor’s girlfriend and her son. And I admit to not knowing pilots that well but is this normal? I watch something like The Shield and the character I remember most is Detective Vic Mackey. I know not everyone can be the crazy out of control “my way or the highway” asshole, but your main characters should be memorable, right?

Here’s the thing though. 17th Precinct still works. Because the star isn’t the characters. It’s the city. And luckily, that part is so fascinating and so different, it makes up for the lack of interesting characters, who you figure have plenty of time to grow in future episodes anyway. Still, I’m curious how the hell they’re going to pull this off. You’re going to have these huge buildings covered with plants, trees running through the middle of offices, people coming back to life in the form of smoke. If you’re not careful, it could end up looking like a Sonic The Hedgehog game. Everything is going to depend on how the directors approach the material. But like I said at the beginning, at least they’re taking chances. At least they’re trying something different. And who knows, if they manage to pull it off, we could have an amazing original series on our hands.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: When writing about a visually exciting unique world, don’t let that world overshadow your characters. This is not to say you should tone down your world. Rather, bring the level of your characters up to the world you’ve put them in. Memorable characters would’ve easily put this into impressive territory.