Episode Two

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

When you pitch a pilot to the network, or to anyone, really, you often find yourself saying stupid things like, "And the great thing is, there are, like, zillions of story ideas with this situation," when in fact there aren't zillions of story areas, or even millions of story areas, or even, really, more than, say, eight story ideas to anything.

The problem is, when you pitch a pilot to the network, they sometimes buy it. And when you make a pilot, they sometimes order it. I know, I know: it's a dying business. But it's dying. It's not dead. The network television business is lying in an expensive care facility all hooked up to machines and pumps and blood bags, and though there is no brain activity to speak of, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. It might suddenly sit bolt upright and demand jello or something. Maybe it can hear us talking about it.

I've lost the thread of this. Oh, right: story areas.

Right now, all over town, all of the producers of new fall shows are beginning pre-production.

So if you've got a show on the air, now, suddenly, you need to come up with about a dozen stories, which should be easy because a few months ago, when you pitched the series, you said stupid things like, "And the great thing is, there are, like, zillions of story areas with this situation." Which now, staring at a blank whiteboard, surrounded by your newly hired writing staff, you realize was an exaggeration.

You have no story ideas. What you have is a pilot, with some characters, but each time you think about what to do with them next -- one of them gets married, one of them loses his car keys, one of them thinks about moving out, one of them gets a new job -- you find yourself unable to really pull the trigger and have something, you know, happen. The hardest episode of any series isn't the pilot. It's episode two. Episode one is all promise and flash and set-up. But episode two is real life. Episode two is the day after the honeymoon, when you've got to answer the mail and get the dry-cleaning and go to work and it suddenly occurs to you that this is it. You again.

The best advice I ever heard about episode two was that it should be episode one again, just a little different. Slightly. And that episodes three through nine should be episode one again, too, vaguely different, because the truth is, even devoted fans of a show only catch one out of three episodes, and you need to etch the idea of the show into the viewers' memories pretty deeply before going off on tangents like car keys and new jobs and moving out.

And when you remember that every story idea -- and there are only eight of them to begin with -- has been done, and done well, on The Dick Van Dyke Show, you start to realize that the task at hand isn't coming up with fresh twists, but coming up with old twists, refreshed.

Entourage, the hip HBO sitcom about a movie star and his pals, has so far this season relied on the oldest, tiredest storyline ever: one series regular wants something -- to sign a big new client, say, or a juicy movie role -- but he can only get it if he sleeps with another, non-series regular character. This story area is so old, so cliched, so tired that even I won't do it. Until at least the fourth season.

But I sympathize with the guys doing that show. It doesn't really matter how hip or cool or critically acclaimed a series is -- at some point, you sit in a room with a writing staff and an empty whiteboard and suddenly the old, old sexual-blackmail show looks pretty good, which you can follow up with the girlfriend with the disapproving dad (which the Entourage team, like the creative team behind Three's Company have made use of) and the two dates in one night show, which I haven't seen on Entourage yet, but can't be too far behind. They did a great one on The Dick Van Dyke Show, I think. Flashback. Rob Petrie in the army. Act break is Laura finds out. To all of those in town struggling with episodes two through nine, I say: take it. No one will know.

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll quit the business. Again. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long