Have You Read These TV Pilot Scripts?
If you want to learn how to write a TV pilot, the first step is to read TV pilot scripts.
Back in the old days, you had to have a friend working at an agency to slip you scripts if you wanted to read pilot script examples. Now, there are many sleuths on the internet who have shared what they have discovered.
Obviously, I’m not sharing any shows that haven’t aired yet and this is for educational purposes. Without further ado, here are the most requested pilot scripts.
Writer/director Jason Reitman said at a live reading of this script, “If you’re a writer tonight, you might want to hide your knives. This script is so good you’ll never want to write again. You f***er, Vince.” Watch Vince Gilligan talk about how Breaking Bad came to be and time lapse view of what it was like in the writer’s room.
Matthew Weiner wrote the Mad Men pilot script in 2000 and originally used it as a writing sample to get hired on The Sopranos. Terence Winter, Oscar-nominated writer of Wolf of Wall Street, creator of Boardwalk Empire and a writer on The Sopranos, recalls being bowled over when Sopranos creator David Chase asked him to read the Mad Men script. “It was all there on the page right out of the gate. The complexity of human interaction he captures — Matt always goes deeper with his writing. He is easily one of the smartest, most well-read people I’ve ever met.” The Mad Men pilot script was rejected by HBO, Showtime and others, but was embraced by AMC. Watch Matt Weiner talk about the few notes he received from AMC on the pilot episode. “This show built a network,” says AMC president Charlie Collier. “You really can’t say that in the same way about any other (modern) show I can think of.”
The Office pilot episode is a direct adaptation from the first episode of the British series. Although the episode was a ratings success, many critics criticized it as too much of a copy of the original. One critic stated, “Maybe, after The Office dies a quick death on NBC, the network will decide that trying to Americanize British TV comedies isn’t such a great idea.”
Head writer Greg Daniels shared that the pilot episode was, “About two-thirds their version and one-third new stuff. It felt — every time you heard a line that you’d already seen on the English show, it was jarring. People were not loving that part of it, I would say. There was a lot of strategy behind it. Initially I figured we would try to sell this to HBO, but the person who loved it best was Kevin Reilly at FX. Then we were like, “All right, cool, FX.” But then he moved and became the head of NBC. So we were like, “NBC?” It didn’t seem like it would be the right home for this at the time.”
In this interview, Greg Daniels talks about the challenges of writing the final season for the long-running show.
Editor’s note: Apparently this script is not the pilot, but a later episode. I will update the link if I find the pilot episode. (7.18.14)
Tina Fey, then head writer of Saturday Night Live, pitched the idea for a series about a cable news network to NBC, who rejected it. She was encouraged to make the show more like Curb Your Enthusiam where she was at the center and really “herself” in the show. Nine months later, Fey approached NBC with a similar idea but it was problematic when based too much on real life. She reworked the concept again. Finally, the third time she pitched the show, NBC purchased.
During development of the show, some characters were altered. Watch clips from the unaired 30 Rock pilot with Rachel Dratch playing the role of Jenna, later replaced by Jane Krakowski.
The series was originally called My American Family. When Christopher Lloyd was asked, “Is the show as it currently stands close to what you pitched?” Lloyd said, ”The only real change was that at the very outset, we had a character who was the documentary filmmaker. The idea was that this guy had been a Dutch exchange student who had stayed with the family 20 years earlier, and he always remembered them as “my American family.” And now he’s in his 30s, he’s become a documentarian, and he realizes, the dad is now on his second marriage, both the kids have grown up, one’s gay, so if I were to make a documentary about the American family, it would be a great place to start. But as we got into it, it became a little bit cumbersome to service this Dutch documentarian every week. And it became a little bit self-conscious, I think. So we got rid of it.”
The creators pitched it to three of the four major networks (they did not pitch it to Fox due to problems Lloyd had with the network with previous shows). CBS was interested, but not ready to make a big commitment. NBC already had two mockumentary shows, The Office and Parks and Recreation, and ABC was the best match.
The pilot episode by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd won the Episodic Comedy award at the Writers Guild of America Awards 2009.
Elizabeth (Liz) Meriwether started as a film writer and playwright. She had developed a pilot previously that hadn’t gotten picked up. Jonathan Davis, executive V.P. of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, was sent a playbill for one of Meriwether’s plays by his mother-in-law. Davis read a few of her plays, loved her voice, and contacted her. Meriwether pitched an idea about an offbeat girl moving in with three single guys, and the show was born.
New Girl was originally titled Chicks and Dicks.
Watch Elizabeth Meriwether talk about how real life moments end up in the show and an in-depth interview from the Writer’s Guild Foundation with Meriwether and executive producers Brett Baer and Dave Finkel.
Writer Chris McKenna said, “The first time I saw Dan [Harmon]’s work, part of my brain exploded.”
The premise of Community was based on Harmon’s real-life experiences. In an attempt to save his relationship with his girlfriend, at the age of 32, he enrolled in Glendale Community College, where they would take Spanish together. Harmon found himself drawn into the lives of fellow students as he helped them with classwork.
Initially, Lost came about because Lloyd Braun who was president of ABC at the time ‘wanted to do a drama version of Survivor.’
After developing a pilot with Jeffrey Lieber, ABC approached J.J. Abrams. Abrams agreed, but was too busy with Alias to do the show himself and wanted to work with another writer. Damon Lindelof had been wanting to write on Alias, but couldn’t get a meeting with Abrams. But then the executive Heather Kadin called Lindelof to meet with Abrams about another project. “The bad news is,” he recalled her saying, “it’s this ridiculous show idea about a plane that crashes on an island and everyone here doesn’t think anything is ever gonna happen with it. So you meet with J.J., this pilot goes nowhere, but then you get a job on Alias!”
In a very quick time frame, Abrams and Lindelof wrote the pilot script and a document to prove to ABC that Lost was a viable series that should be picked up.
Read the original document that was recently leaked and this interview with Lindelof which explains that it was not meant for the public and more about the direction of the show.
The Lost pilot was one of the most expensive to produce (estimates range between $10-$14 million) and is one of the most critically acclaimed television pilots of all time.
The Sopranos began as a feature script idea, then turned into a network series idea (almost airing on Fox without any killings), and finally finding a home at HBO.
Creator David Chase said, “The Sopranos was just this idea about a mobster in therapy… This was uncharted territory. I mean, all of a sudden the guy that your entire network is riding on is going to strangle somebody to death with a piece of piano wire? That had never been done… I said ‘This guy is a mob boss in New Jersey. If he doesn’t kill this guy, he’s worthless as a mob boss. He’s worthless as a TV gangster.’ And I knew I was right about that.”
In a review of the pilot completed more recently, Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club said, “To say that The Sopranos was an influential show is an understatement. Virtually every drama on the air today follows at least some part of The Sopranos model.”
After the fourth book in his series debuted at #1 on the New York Times best-seller list, author George R.R. Martin was getting many inquiries from studio executives who wanted to turn his book series into a feature film. Writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pitched Martin over a five-hour lunch at The Palm about why it should be a TV series on HBO instead. Thankfully, Martin agreed as he only envisioned it as a TV series.
Watch David Benioff and D.B. Weiss interviewed on The Writer’s Room about when they first read the books, how they pitched George R.R Martin and their writing process.
Initally, Tom McCarthy directed the pilot episode. However, due to artistic and casting reasons, it was decided that this pilot would not serve as the first episode. Several parts were recast and the reshot pilot episode that aired was directed by Tim Van Patten. In this detailed article, io9 dissects the differences between the two Game of Thrones’ pilots based on a copy of the script posted online.
Want to learn how to write a TV pilot?
Check out this spreadsheet keeping track of the scripts being considered for the 2014 Pilot Season. If you want to read a book about how to write a TV pilot, Ellen Sandler’s The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts is a great place to start.
What pilot script is your favorite? What scripts would you like to read?