PrimeTime: How Much Should Characters Change in My Pilot?

Today’s question comes from Noah, an aspiring TV writer who asks …

As a general rule, how much should characters change/grow in a pilot? Slightly, but not much? Unlike that aphorism, “characters don’t change in TV, only in film” — isn’t it true that a character learns something minor in the pilot? That they AREN’T in the same place at the end of the pilot than where they started? And do all of the main characters need to change if it’s a two- or three-hander?

Super-interesting question, Noah … and, weirdly, one that has twice sparked heated debates I’ve been in!

There are actually two components to this question:

  1. Do TV characters change over the course of a single episode, including the pilot? And …
  2. Do TV characters change over the course of a series?

Looking at the first question, I think the answer is a resounding YES.

Even before looking specifically at television, I believe the basis and purpose of all storytelling is to take people — both audiences and characters — on an EMOTIONAL JOURNEY.

Whether a story is told on a TV screen, a stage, or in the pages of a novel … whether it’s tragic, comic, or terrifying …

every story must follow a character (or characters) on an emotional journey.

Every story is a road trip ... emotionally speaking.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the character grows or “learns something” or becomes a “better person” … but it does mean he/she emotionally transforms. In novelist Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, 13-year-old Ava transforms from a sheltered, gullible, naïve child into a young woman familiar with humanity’s darkest, basest impulses. In Woody Allen’s greatest film, Annie Hall, Alan transforms from a heartbroken romantic, who fails to accept the loss of love, into an accepting adult, a man who understands that while loss happens, we must forge ahead with life. When Susan dies licking envelopes on Seinfeld, George transforms from a trapped, frustrated prisoner to a man eager to embrace his newfound freedom.

In fact, it’s a character’s emotional transformation — or arc — that allows the audience itself to transform as well, to feel and enjoy the story’s emotional rollercoaster. We may not experience the exact same journey as the story’s characters — in Swamplandia, for instance, we’re much more aware of Ava’s danger than she is; so while she’s still blissfully ignorant, we’re terrified on her behalf — but their journey allows us to feel and journey something on our own.

So if your pilot’s characters don’t go on an emotional journey … if they don’t end in a different emotional space from where they began … neither will your audience.

Now, what kind of emotional journey your characters go on, and how profound, is up to you.

The Cosby Show pilot, for example, which will always be one of my favorites (it’s the one where Cliff uses Monopoly money to teach Theo about having a “normal job”), was about a father and son realizing new things about each other’s desires and expectations. Cliff had to understand that his son may not share his big professional dreams … and Theo had to understand that while he may not aspire to be a doctor like his father, Cliff expected him to make the most of himself. It’s an intimate and personal story, a simple relationship between a parent and child, but both characters end up in different emotional places from where they began.

CBS’s new Hawaii Five-O pilot, on the other hand, took Steve McGarrett on a different kind of emotional journey. It begins with him trying to solve — and deal with — the death of his murdered policeman father. And in order to complete that journey, he has to partner with a motley crew of cops, including Danny Williams, who does not want to work with him. The pilot is, in a way, about Steve losing one family — his actual father — and finding another: his new police unit.

What Cliff Huxtable and Steve McGarrett have in common ...

These two pilots, The Cosby Show and Hawaii Five-O, are obviously very different; one is a family story with small, personal arcs … the other’s a loud, sexy, action-packed adventure with more brash, visual arcs. But ultimately, they’re both about characters who transform … and coincidentally, in similar ways: Both Theo and Steve must navigate and come to terms with their relationships with their fathers.

Perhaps more importantly … a good pilot doesn’t just give its characters a transformation, it gives its characters the right transformation, a transformation that illuminates and sets up the series.

A great example is the pilot for USA’s new legal drama, Suits. The pilot establishes the relationship between Mike Ross, a young slacker wasting his potential, and Harvey Specter, a hotshot lawyer who never gets emotionally involved with clients. In the pilot, these two men team up on a particular sexual harassment case — a case they win because Mike isn’t afraid to form an emotional connection with the client. By the end of the episode, Harvey — thanks to Mike — has realized a bit about the value of human connection … and Mike — thanks to Harvey — has started to learn some discipline and get his life together. They’ve not only transformed, but they’ve transformed in a specific way that sets up the series: Their transformations tell us exactly who these men are and how their relationship will work. This doesn’t mean every episode has the exact same emotional journey; it just means these particular themes and dynamics define the Mike-Harvey relationship.

So all of this is to say, Noah … YES. Characters in a pilot must transform emotionally.

Exactly how they change, and how you dramatize their transformation, is up to you and your story, but change they must.

This holds true for every episode of television, not just pilots. Every main character must have an arc from the beginning of an episode to the end of the episode.

In “Halloween,” my favorite episode of The Office, for example, Michael Scott must select one employee to fire. He begins the story as a man who will go to ridiculous lengths to duck the responsibility of making someone unhappy and looking like the bad guy. Of course, he fails miserably … and by the end of the show, his co-workers have abandoned him and gone to drinks themselves, leaving Michael home alone — the one thing he’s most terrified of — giving candy to trick-or-treaters. As funny as the episode is, the ending is stunningly touching.

And in a recent rerun of How I Met Your Mother, Ted moved out of Lily and Marshall’s apartment to live with his girlfriend, Robin. Ted begins the story eager to live with his sweetheart … but by the end, both he and Robin have realized they’re not ready for this level of commitment. Marhsall and Lily, meanwhile, are excited to have their own apartment back … until they begin to miss Ted and appreciate all the things he did for them. Ultimately, Ted moves back in with Lily and Marshall; everyone’s happy. The point: Even though the story seems to begin and end in the same place, all four main characters had emotional transformations, realizing something important about their relationship with those close to them.

So whether you’re writing Episode 7, a pilot, or a novel — YOUR CHARACTERS MUST TRANSFORM.

Now, as for the second part of the question:

Do TV characters change over the course of a series?

This is the area that tends to spark arguments. Most drama characters develop and change over the life of a series — just look at the characters’ growth in Mad Men or Dexter — but I’ve heard many people argue that sitcom characters stay the same. Sitcom characters, they say, may have little arcs in each story, but they then reset at the beginning of each new episode.

Yeah, well …

I don’t buy it.

It may be true for some shows … but for the most part … I think making a blanket statement that sitcom characters don’t/can’t/shouldn’t change is 100 percent false, lazy thinking … and shows a gross lack of understanding or appreciation for what some of today’s best sitcom writers are actually doing.

Sitcoms have gotten much more sophisticated over the last 15 years … and many characters do change and grow over the course of a series. They may not change as quickly or profoundly as Walt White on Breaking Bad, but they do change in impressive ways.

Scientifically proven: greatest show on television

Over the last three years of Parks & Recreation, for example, we’ve watched Leslie Knope grow from an inexperienced bumbler to a more confident, visionary leader. (She’s not always effective, but we’ve seen her take charge, show real leadership, succeed with overwhelming projects, and transform not only her department, but the friends she works with.)

Similarly, in the pilot for the American The Office, Michael Scott was playing cruel tricks on Pam, pretending to fire her. But in the final moment of his goodbye episode, seven years later, the two of them shared a beautiful, silent moment together — reminiscent of Lost in Translation — signifying the culmination of a long journey that had brought them to mutual respect and affection.

(If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s that I pretty much love anything Greg Daniels touches. I’ve never met Greg, but he’s one of my favorite writers working today.)

This doesn’t mean these characters have totally metamorphosed into different people. They’ve obviously remained recognizable as characters, and their basic hearts and worldviews have remained the same, but they have grown and learned better how to navigate their worlds. (Likewise, Community’s Jeff Winger never loses his wry, cynical, sardonic attitude, yet he’s grown from someone who sneered at and disdained his fellow study group members to someone who values and appreciates their friendship and individuality.)

So for the second question …

Do TV characters, or more specifically, sitcom characters, change over the course of a series?

To this question, I also give a resounding YES.

Or at least, in my favorite shows they do.

Thanks again for the questions, Noah! Feel free to ask more by posting them in the comments section below, emailing me at chad@chadgervich.com, Facebooking me at Facebook.com/Chad Gervich, or Tweeting me @chadgervich.

5 thoughts on “PrimeTime: How Much Should Characters Change in My Pilot?

  1. Greg

    Hells to the yeah. I’d say the change is most dramatic in serialized drama (c.f. Alias and LOST–both pilot and series). I’d also offer up “Louie” as a great example of a comedy with an emotional journey each episode, but “Louie” is so wonderfully oddball I don’t know if it fits as an example of anything other than the wonders of complete creative control. “30 Rock” has also offered up some great emotional transformations on the part of Liz & Jack.

    Another point I’d add in support of yours, Chad, is that pilots as written are writing samples for studios/showrunners, so you want to make sure you show off *everything* you can do, so it’s a damn near necessity to have an emotional journey.

  2. Ron Napier

    Your concept of an emotional journey in an episode and in a series makes sense to me. Contrary to CCW’s view, I believe that Larry rides a emotional roller-coaster each week. That’s why CYE is a delight. Characters who don’t change becoming boring, hence mediocre. Look at the disappearance of some soap operas recently. On the other hand, watch Ralph Cramden’s journey in The Honeymooners. Yes, I’m old, and you btw look 25.

  3. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    CCW– Larry DID go on an emotional journey last week… as he does every week.

    He begins last week’s episode by becoming a “false hero,” getting credit for saving the flight attendant from an obnoxious drunk. He enjoys the adoration he receives, but when he’s outted later, he’s disgraced… and then redeemed by defending the woman from a subway attacker.

    So while there’s not necessarily a “moral” and Larry may never “learn” anything, there IS a very clear emotional journey. Larry goes from being his normal self… to hero… to loser… then back to redeemed hero.

    An “emotional journey” doesn’t necessarily mean characters need to become better people, but they DO need to change emotionally, even in small ways. On subversive shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Louie,” in fact, characters often end up “worse”– or at least more cynical or depraved. But they DO change; they end up in different emotional places from where they began.

    This is neither a “cookie-cutter rule” nor “a recipe for mediocrity”… it’s the basis of story-telling, and I would challenge you to find a story where the character remains emotionally flat throughout the narrative.

    I’m all for breaking rules… and I applaud you if you can find a way to tell a compelling story where the character remains emotionally stagnant… but while I’m sure you can write that on paper, I doubt you can make readers care.

    Chad

  4. ccw

    I’m pretty sure Larry didn’t “change” or “go on an emotional journey” on “Curb Your Enthusiam” this week. I’m also pretty sure it was the funniest thing on TV this week as well.

    These cookie-cutter rules like “your character must go on an emotional journey” are a recipe for mediocrity.

  5. Jim Yelton

    I think when you are talking about character development and “change” in television it’s all relative to how long the series has been on the air. It’s hard for some to think about it unless you point to a series lucky enough to be on the air for more than a year or two.

    Chad, great example with Parks and Rec…It doesn’t have the tenure of other comedies on the air, but there has been tremendous growth of characters on that show. Even the newer additions of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott have developed more than most sitcom characters do in a short period of time.

    I’ve also noticed that, in some cases, just revealing more about a character can add depth and motivation behind how they go about their business. It’s not really “changing” them, but it makes for a deeper understanding of the character for the audience.

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