This past weekend I watched the five pilots that Amazon put up to gauge customer interest. It’s an interestingly democratic way to do the pilot process: bring the pilots to the people, and let them decide which should get a series order.
Pilots are, of course, like opening chapters of a novel: they have to hook, they have to engage, and most importantly, they have to establish stakes. You have to gauge your pacing and your revelations, and make sure characters are responding in proportion to the events unfolding. You can’t just have people screaming about how serious things are and expect the audience to buy in to that.
In other words, stakes have to be real, and they have to be shown.
On of the five pilots in particular, Hysteria, fails greatly in this regard. We start with a doctor visiting her brother on death row, where he wants her to tell him about what she’s investigating in Austin. This is just a framing device for the real story, in which (and I’m quoting from the copy) “A young doctor is summoned back to her hometown to investigate an epidemic that may be linked to social media.”
Now, we’ll ignore that her hometown is Austin, and despite the fact that it was filmed here in Austin, the show frames the city like it’s a place with one school, one hospital, abandoned factories and alleys that cops get beat up in if they walk down alone. We’ll ignore that stuff.
Instead we’ll talk about the stakes.
See, it starts with a bunch of girls sneaking out at night to go dance with some wrong-side-of-the-highway boys in the abandoned snowglobe factory. One of the girls is livecasting it on her phone while she gets sexually aggressive with on of the boys. The other boy starts to get aggressive with her sister, but then her sister starts having seizures.
At the hospital, the doctor is already treating it like it’s Super Serious Business– beyond the scope of just her having seizures and being in a coma. Before even the light of day hits, he’s already talking about calling in our main character from Houston, as she’s a neurologist and psychiatrist.* Because in Austin, there’s none of those on hand, or something.
Now, by the time the doctor arrives, the video has been seen by a handful of people, one of whom (another girl who was there) starts having seizures. We literally only see her hand shaking, and then we never hear directly about her again. The other girls who were there, we are explicitly shown that they are fine.**
So, to reiterate: two cases. Despite that, we’re shown the doctors talking to the parents of ALL THE GIRLS as if they all have a stake. Like, “hey, parents of girls who are not patients, let’s have a conference involving you as well.”
Meanwhile, we see a mysterious person putting together a video of the girl having a seizure mixed with other footage of her dancing. For mysterious, possibly nefarious reasons. After that video comes out and goes viral, then there’s another person with seizures.
And the city of Austin freaks completely out.
So, let’s go back: two girls with seizures– so it may be a disease or or exposure to something, or it may be one girl with a neurological problem and a friend with some sort of sympathetic psychosomatic reaction. Then a third– and to everyone’s knowledge, completely unrelated or connected person– also has seizures (and that could just be epilepsy or something else entirely) in a city with a greater metro population of a million. And people reaction like the Serious Epidemic Business is here.
Like, screaming in the hospital parking lot freak out. Like, press conference in the high school gymnasium with the chief of police and screaming angry parents.
Had the show even remotely earned these stakes? No, not at all. Not with only three cases, one of which shows no real connection to the the other two. In fact, the third case is shown to be different because he gets violent with the people trying to help him. There’s literally no reason for them to even think the third case is connected to the other two, beyond seizures.
Of course, our heroine figures out a connection, in that the third victim is the mysterious guy who made the video, and thus she thinks that the SEIZURES ARE BEING TRANSMITTED THROUGH YOUTUBE. Or something. This is despite the fact that we’re shown plenty of people seeing the video (and it’s hardly a clickbaity-you-have-to-see-this-video), and no one else is showing symptoms. But before this absurd epiphany (which seems to be the underlying premise of the show), they have no reason to believe any connection. They say that his symptoms aren’t the same, except for seizures, and that they don’t believe he’s had any contact with the girls… so why do they think it’s a connected case? They just do.
So what did they do wrong? They didn’t establish believable stakes. If anything, they explicitly undercut their stakes, but then had characters react as if the stakes were extremely serious.
If you want your audience to believe what you’re telling them, believe that situations are serious, then stakes have to be established fairly and legitimately. This isn’t just a matter of show vs. tell– we’re shown who’s sick, we’re shown the town’s reaction. But what we’re shown of events doesn’t match what we’re shown of reaction.
Without well-established stakes with logical points connecting them, there’s no way your audience is going to accept what you’re giving them.
*- The mother latches onto “psychiatrist” part and freaks out.
**- One is set up with tension, like her father is going to find her seizing in the shower, but no, she’s fine and showering, and yells at her dad for coming in there.