And Then I Wrote a TV Pilot

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Last week, I finished writing a TV pilot. The story is a paranormal mystery. The protagonist is a snarky young woman with intense curiosity. The landscape is misty; the tone is macabre. And if this script became a TV series, I would devour every episode, twice.

The pilot is adapted from my podcast, The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, a pulp fiction series that started as a hobby and has ballooned into a franchise of recordings and books. Not long ago, my friend Bill Holman—actor, cinematographer, Renaissance man—urged me to turn the podcast into a TV series. The writing reminded him of BBC’s Sherlock. (He was the third person to say so). With its gritty historical setting and fantastical twists, the stories begged to be broadcast.

The prospect of a pilot already excited me. Then, at the behest of my publisher, I put together a “book trailer” for the latest Elizabeth Crowne novel, which added fuel to the flames:

More than ever, I could see the stories. I could imagine recognizable actors in the roles I had devised. The prose-y descriptions of the podcast felt so easy to translate into “action,” and, in turn, into visuals on a living room screen.

I hesitated for two reasons: First, I know the odds are long. Every bar-back and bell-hop in SoCal has a hard drive full of original pilots, and few of them are ever even read, much less optioned. The last thing a Hollywood producer wants to see is a script from an East Coast playwright, especially a playwright who hasn’t written a play in years.

Then there’s my odd relationship with television: I grew up in a very rural town, and I didn’t really understand what cable was until I was a teenager. I didn’t own a TV set for much of my adult life. When I started writing about television for MSN.com, I did most of my research at friends’ houses (which gave us an excuse to hang out), or I rented entire seasons of Lost and Big Love from Blockbuster. When Netflix started streaming, I discovered the joys of binging—but even now, I’m choosy. The sight of a TV switched on during daylight hours makes me physically ill.

Yet I’ve also come to embrace the “New Golden Age of Television,” as the critics boldly describe it. A two-hour movie now feels quaint by comparison, when the narrative canvas can stretch for years and years. The untamed possibilities of Netflix Originals and Amazon Studios now seem infinite. For screenwriters, this era is a gold rush: Producers are hurling money at new dramas and comedies, desperate to keep up with viewers’ bottomless appetites. The odds are still long, but they don’t feel as long as they used to.

My pilot is an experiment—a clunky, oily hotrod, assembled from spare parts, waiting in the garage to be taken for a spin—but dear lord, was it fun to write. From everything I hear, Hollywood is a cold and caustic place, and industry people get cynical fast. Yet more than one screenwriting coach has said it: Write what you love. Believe in what you’re doing. Such sentimental advice has always startled me, coming from such world-weary writers. I’ve composed countless scripts over the years, mostly for stage, sometimes for screen. But nothing has seemed quite so worth believing in.

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